Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Homo georgicus

Homo georgicus is the name proposed to describe fossil human remains that have been found at the medieval town of Dmanisi, Georgia from 1991. The site has been of interest to archaeologists for many years and bones of extinct mammals had previously been recovered from the site. Mode I stone tools, similar to the Oldowan tradition of East Africa, and comprising flakes and flaked pebbles were discovered in 1984. The human remains include four partial human skulls and two lower jaws.

A basalt layer below the fossils has been dated to between 1.95-1.77 million years old by magnetic polarity considerations, which are normal. The material occurring with the fossils shows reversed polarity, dating it from 1.77 million to 790,000 years. The mammal bones do suggest the earlier date based on when certain species overlapped in time.

The skull known as D2700 has an extremely small braincase volume of 600cc, similar to that of Homo habilis and it has been suggested that it has a closer relationship to this species than it does to African Homo ergaster or Asian Homo erectus. If so, it would imply that humans of the habilis rather than the erectus grade were the first to leave Africa. However a recent description of a metatarsal shows a close fit with the derived Homo ergaster body plan rather than that of Homo habilis, which retained many australopithecine features.


Cameron D & Groves C (2004): Bones, Stones and Molecules: “Out of Africa” and Human Origins, Elsevier Academic Press.

Scarre C (2005) (Ed): “The human past”, Thames & Hudson.

Abesalom Vekua, David Lordkipanidze, G. Philip Rightmire, Jordi Agusti, Reid Ferring, Givi Maisuradze, Alexander Mouskhelishvili, Medea Nioradze,
Marcia Ponce de Leon, Martha Tappen, Merab Tvalchrelidze, Christoph Zollikofer (2002): A New Skull of Early Homo from Dmanisi, Georgia, Science 297, 85 (2002).

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Homo cepranensis

Homo cepranensis is the name proposed for a hominid skullcap found near the Italian town of Ceprano in 1994 by archaeologist Italo Biddittu. Unfortunately it was shattered by a bulldozer during highway construction immediately before its discovery. On the basis of regional correlations and a series of absolute dates, the age of the Ceprano hominid is estimated to range between 800,000 and 900,000 years.

It shares many features with skull caps of Homo erectus including a massive shelf-like brow ridge, extremely thick skull walls, sharply-angled occipital region and a small internal volume, estimated at 1057cc. Had it been discovered in eastern Asia, it might well have been assigned to H. erectus (Scarre (2005)).

Interpretation is difficult due to the lack of material. Manzi et al (2001) point out that affinity with the contemporary Homo antecessor might be expected but unfortunately among the nearly 80 fossil pieces that have been found so far, none is directly or adequately comparable with the Ceprano specimen, at least in terms of completeness (as for some temporal bone fragments) or age at death (as in the case of the juvenile frontal TD6-15). It is possible that further examples of H. antecessor will eventually be recovered, and that these will reveal affinities to H. cepranensis.

However Cameron & Groves (2004) have suggested that this species originated in Eurasia, with a later Eurasian Homo erectus population moving into Western Europe about one million years ago before eventually becoming extinct. Clarke (2000) claims the Ceprano specimen has affinities to the Olduvai hominid OH9 (1.2 million years old). OH9 and OH12 (700,000 years old) have been considered to represent “classic” (i.e. Eurasian) specimens of Homo erectus and may represent an expansion of this species back into Africa from Eurasia. On this picture, then, Homo cepranensis is seen as a representative of a European deme of Homo erectus that was associated with migrations “Into Africa”.


A. Ascenzi, F. Mallegni, G. Manzi, A. G. Segre & E. Segre Naldini (2000): A re-appraisal of Ceprano calvaria affinities with Homo erectus, after the new reconstruction, Journal of Human Evolution (2000) 39, 443–450.

Cameron D & Groves C (2004): Bones, Stones and Molecules: “Out of Africa” and Human Origins, Elsevier Academic Press.

Clarke R.J (2000): A corrected reconstruction and interpretation of the Homo erectus calvaria from Ceprano, Italy, Journal of Human Evolution, Volume 39, Number 4, October 2000, pp. 433-442.

G. Manzi, F. Mallegni, and A. Ascenzi (2001): A cranium for the earliest Europeans: Phylogenetic position of the hominid from Ceprano, Italy, PNAS August 14, 2001 vol. 98 no. 17 10013.

Scarre C (2005) (Ed): “The human past”, Thames & Hudson.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Homo antecessor

Homo antecessor (“Pioneer Man”) is the name given to an extinct human species known from just two sites in the Atapuerca Hills of Northern Spain – Gran Dolina and Sima del Elefante. The remains were discovered by Eudald Carbonell, Juan Luis Arsuaga and J. M. Bermúdez de Castro.

The initial discoveries were made at the Gran Dolina Cave, Layer TD6 between 1994 and 1995. The find comprised over 90 bone fragments including 18 skull fragments, 4 partial jaws, 14 teeth, 16 vertebrae, 16 ribs, 20 bones from the hands and feet, 2 wrist bones, 3 collar bones, 2 lower arm bones, a thigh bone and 2 knee-caps from a minimum of 6 individuals, all of whom were aged between 3 and 18 when they died. Around 200 flaked stone artefacts were also found. Palaeomagnetic considerations date the find to at least 700,000 years old; electron spin resonance dates the fossils and artefacts to between 857,000 and 780,000 years old; bones of extinct rodent species support this age; the excavators conservatively date the find to 800,000 years old.

However in 2007 a fragment of a mandible and an isolated lower left fourth premolar from the same individual were recovered from the TE9 layer at the nearby Sima del Elefante site. These have also been assigned to Homo antecessor and dating based on palaeomagnetism, biostratigraphy and cosmogenic nuclides suggests an age of 1.2–1.1 million years.

The tools found at the Gran Dolina are simple Mode 1 (Oldowan) technology, with no evidence of Acheulian hand-axes or cleavers characteristic of later African Homo ergaster or H. heidelbergensis.

One of the most significant features of the Gran Dolina TD6 find is that around 25% of the bones show signs of human-caused damage including chop and cut marks, peeling where bones have been broken and bent, and percussion marks where bones have been splintered for marrow extraction. All of which adds up to a compelling case for cannibalism. The extent of the damage suggests this was of a dietary rather than ritual nature, suggesting in turn nutritional stress.

Bermúdez de Castro and his colleagues argue against the currently popular view that hominids such as Mauer, Vertesszollos, Bilzingsleben, Arago, and Petralona, together with Bodo, Broken Hill 1, and Dali (among other middle Pleistocene fossils not considered to be H. erectus) belong to a single species, Homo heidelbergensis, that was ancestral to both modern humans and the Neanderthals. They argue that European middle Pleistocene fossils are ancestral only to the Neanderthals and that the Mauer mandible, the holotype for Homo heidelbergensis, shows clear derived Neanderthal traits, such as a large retromolar space, whereas teeth shape and morphology are indistinguishable from those of Neanderthals. They conclude that other than a European chronospecies, H. heidelbergensis should be rejected.

Dental and cranial features suggest Homo antecessor is close to Homo ergaster. While Homo antecessor has similarities to Homo heidelbergensis (i.e. proto-Neanderthals), it has more traits in common with modern humans than does Homo heidelbergensis, being for example relatively gracile, most similar to H. ergaster and modern humans but unlike H. heidelbergensis or the Neanderthals. On this picture, Homo antecessor evolved from Homo ergaster in Africa then spread via the Middle East to Europe where it evolved (via Homo heidelbergensis) into the Neanderthals. In Africa Homo antecessor evolved into Homo sapiens via such fossils as the Bodo and Kabwe skulls. The species Homo rhodesiensis or Homo helmei would have to be revived for these presumptive H. antecessor/H. sapiens transitional types, with H. heidelbergensis being a solely European transitional type between H. antecessor and the Neanderthals.

Neither this view nor Homo antecessor as a species is widely accepted. Many believe that H. antecessor is an ofshoot of Homo ergaster and that it died off without issue, possibly during the glacial periods of 800,000-600,000 years ago. Clearly further evidence is needed, from Africa in particular.


J. M. Bermudez de Castro, J. L. Arsuaga, E. Carbonell, A. Rosas, I. Martınez, M. Mosquera (1997): A Hominid from the Lower Pleistocene of Atapuerca, Spain: Possible Ancestor to Neandertals and Modern Humans, Science Vol. 276 30 May 1997.

Cameron D & Groves C (2004): Bones, Stones and Molecules: “Out of Africa” and Human Origins, Elsevier Academic Press.

Eudald Carbonell, Jose M. Bermudez de Castro, Josep M. Pares, Alfredo Perez-Gonzalez, Gloria Cuenca-Bescos, Andreu Olle, Marina Mosquera, Rosa Huguet, Jan van der Made, Antonio Rosas, Robert Sala, Josep Vallverdu, Nuria Garcıa, Darryl E. Granger, Marıa Martinon-Torres, Xose P. Rodrıguez, Greg M. Stock, Josep M. Verges, Ethel Allue, Francesc Burjachs, Isabel Caceres, Antoni Canals, Alfonso Benito, Carlos Dıez, Marina Lozano, Ana Mateos, Marta Navazo, Jesus Rodrıguez, Jordi Rosell & Juan L. Arsuaga (2008): The first hominin of Europe, Nature Vol 452 27 March 2008.

Scarre C (2005) (Ed): “The human past”, Thames & Hudson.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Monday, 29 December 2008

The Bodo cranium (Homo heidelbergensis)

The Bodo cranium was recovered in 1976 from an outcrop of Middle Pleistocene sediments at Bodo in the Middle Awash valley, Ethiopia. It is one of the most complete African skulls from this period yet recovered. It was found in deposits containing Acheulian tools that were dated by the argon-40/argon-39 method to between 670,000 and 600,000 years old. It possesses many features characteristic of Homo ergaster, such as a low braincase, broad and robust facial skeleton, relatively thick bones, a forehead with a central bulge and a massive brow ridge.

Its cranial capacity, however, has been estimated at 1300cc, close to that of a modern human and considerably greater than that of Homo ergaster. It has variously been classed as archaic Homo sapiens, Homo sapiens c.f. rhodesiensis, but is now generally classed as Homo heidelbergensis.

The cranium has cut-marks suggesting intentional de-fleshing by a human with a stone tool. These may imply cannibalism, mortuary practice for ritual purposes, or both. However, the skull lacks the cranial base, meaning that brain removal through the foramen magnum cannot be clearly established, and unequivocal evidence for cannibalism is therefore lacking.


Scarre C (2005) (Ed): “The human past”, Thames & Hudson.

White T (1986) Cut Marks on the Bodo Cranium: A Case of Prehistoric
Defleshing, American Journal of Physical Anthropology 69503-509 (1986).

© Christopher Seddon 2008

The Herto remains (Homo sapiens idaltu)

The Herto remains are a find of early anatomically modern human remains from Herto, Middle Awash in the Afar Triangle, Ethiopia. The find comprises of three well-preserved crania plus fragmentary remains. The crania were discovered in 1997 by a team lead by Dr. Tim White but the find was not described until 2003. Two of the crania belong to adult males; the third belongs to a six-year-old child. The cranial capacity of the best-preserved adult cranium, known as BOU-VP-16/1, is 1450cc – at the high end of the modern human range.

Deposits dated by the argon-40/argon-39 method to 154,000 years old and 160,000 years old provided constraints on the age of the Herto remains. At the time, they were the earliest examples known of modern Homo sapiens. Crucially they pre-date the “classic” Neanderthals, ruling out the possibility that modern humans are descended from the latter.

Although the finds are close enough to present-day humans to be considered the same species, they retain some primitive morphological features from earlier human species such as Homo heidelbergensis. The braincases are longer and the brow ridges are more pronounced than those of later humans. For this reason, White erected a new subspecies for them, Homo sapiens idaltu (idaltu means elder or first-born in the Afar language).

Stone tools found with the fossils suggest a transitional phase between the Acheulian hand-axe and Middle Stone Age (MSA) flake technologies. Such assemblages are traditionally classified as final Acheulian.

The Herto people occupied the margin of a freshwater lake, and archaeological evidence indicates butchery of large mammal carcasses, particularly hippopotamus. Whether they hunted or simply scavenged these animals is not known.

The less-intact adult cranium (BOU-VP-16/2) bears cut-marks made with stone tools. Some of these are deep cut-marks typical of de-fleshing, but more abundant are more superficial marks showing a repetitive scraping motion, a pattern that is not seen on faunal remains processed for food, or in instances of cannibalism.

The child’s skull exhibits cut-marks made by a very sharp stone flake deep in its base. The rear part of the cranial base was broken away, and the broken edges polished. The sides of the skull show a deep polish that may have formed from repeated handling of the skull after it was de-fleshed.

All of this implies some form of ancient mortuary practice. Ethnographic evidence from several cultures documents the post-mortem manipulation and preservation of human remains as part of mortuary practices. For example, some New Guinean crania show cut-marks, decoration and polishing reminiscent of traces seen on the Herto people.

This suggests the Herto people may have had complex belief systems; a feature considered to be one of the hallmarks of modern human behaviour.


Clark JD, Beyene Y, WoldeGabriel G, Hartk WK, Renne PR, Gilbert H, Defleurq A, Suwa G, Katoh S, Ludwig KR, Boisserie J-R, Asfawkk B & White TD (2003): Stratigraphic, chronological and behavioural contexts of Pleistocene Homo sapiens from Middle Awash, Ethiopia, Nature Vol 423 12 June 2003.

White TD, Asfaw B, DeGusta D, Gilbert H, Richards GD, Suwa G & Howell FC (2003): Pleistocene Homo sapiens from Middle Awash, Ethiopia, Nature Vol 423 12 June 2003.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Omo remains (Homo sapiens)

The Omo I (Kibish) and Omo II (Kibish) remains are currently the oldest-known fossils of anatomically-modern humans (Homo sapiens). They were recovered by Richard Leakey in 1967 from the base of Member I of the Kibish Formation near the Omo River in south-western Ethiopia. Both Omo I and Omo II comprise a braincase and some postcranial material. Omo I fully modern in appearance; Omo II is slightly more primitive with a long, low cranium. However both are believed to be about the same age.

Originally believed to be around 130,000 years old, the Omo remains have recently been assigned a date of 195,000 +/- 5,000 years old, based on argon-40/argon-39 dating of volcanic tuffs (ash) found within Member I at levels. This makes them substantially older than the Herto remains discovered in 1997, previously thought to be the earliest-known fossil remains of modern humans. What is curious is that the 156,000 year old Herto remains, despite being around 40,000 years more recent than the Omo remains, retain more primitive features and were originally assigned their own subspecies, Homo sapiens idaltu.


McDougall I, Brown FH & Fleagle JG (2005): Stratigraphic placement and
age of modern humans from Kibish, Ethiopia, Nature 734 Vol 433 17 Feb 2005.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

The Florisbad skull (Homo helmei)

Florisbad 1 is a hominin fossil recovered by Prof. T.F. Dreyer from the depths of a warm lithium spring deposit in the Orange Free State, South Africa, in 1932. The skull consists of frontal and parietal pieces and an incomplete right side of the face (Conroy, 1997). In 1996 a direct date was obtained for the skull using electron spin resonance dating on two small samples of enamel removed from the only tooth to be found with the skull. These yielded a date of 259,000 +/- 35,000 years (Grun et al 1996).

The skull was originally classified as Homo helmei by Dreyer to mark its distinctiveness from other fossil Homo sapiens. It is now generally either described as “archaic Homo sapiens” or assigned to Homo heidelbergensis, but it may be an intermediate form between H. heidelbergensis and H. sapiens, in which case retention of the Homo helmei classification would be appropriate.


Conroy G (1997): “Reconstructing Human Origins: A Modern Synthesis”, W.W. Norton & Co. Inc, New York, NY & London.

Grün, R., Brink, J.S., Spooner, N.A., Taylor, L., Stringer, C.B., Franciscus, R.B. & Murray, A. (1996): Direct dating of the Florisbad hominid. Nature 382: 500–501.

Lewin, R and Foley, R 2004: Principles of Human Evolution (2nd edition), Blackwell Science Ltd.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

The Kabwe skull (Homo rhodesiensis)

The Kabwe skull or Broken Hill 1 is a hominin fossil originally classified as Homo rhodesiensis. It was found in an iron and zinc mine in Broken Hill, Northern Rhodesia (now Kabwe, Zambia) in 1921 by a Swiss miner named Tom Zwiglaar. In addition to the skull, several postcranial bones were found including a femur and a tibia. The skull became known to anthropologists as Rhodesian Man but is now commonly referred to as the Broken Hill or Kabwe skull. The Kabwe skull is estimated to have a cranial capacity of 1,100cc. It has heavy brow ridges and a slightly keeled and constricted frontal bone.

The age of the remains are contentious, with secure dating impossible due to the destruction of geological context by mining activity. Archaic mammal species recovered with the skull suggest a date of 700,000-400,000 years old (Scarre, 2005). Conroy (1997) cites archaeological and palaeontological evidence that give a date of more than 125,000 years; Lewin & Foley (2004) give an age of “at least 200,000 years”.

The Kabwe skull was until recently classed as “archaic Homo sapiens” but is usually now classed as Homo heidelbergensis. Some authorities retain the H. rhodesiensis classification and reserve H. heidelbergensis for European hominins.


Conroy G (1997): “Reconstructing Human Origins: A Modern Synthesis”, W.W. Norton & Co. Inc, New York, NY & London.

Lewin, R and Foley, R 2004: Principles of Human Evolution (2nd edition), Blackwell Science Ltd.

Scarre C (2005) (Ed): “The human past”, Thames & Hudson.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Ice Ages

Introduction: We live in an era where even politicians have realised the significant threat climate change poses to civilization and indeed to all life on Earth, but it is nothing new and has been a major driving force of evolutionary change for hundreds of millions of years. One species that undoubtedly owes its very existence to climate change is Homo sapiens. It is no coincidence that the earliest human species, Homo habilis, emerged at just about the same time as Earth entered an ice age. The subsequent epochs of advancing and retreating ice sheets have played a pivotal role in the evolution and dispersal of subsequent human species, culminating in that of modern humans, Homo sapiens.

The Current Ice Age: We now know that the Earth has been affected by a number of ice ages in its history. The current Ice Age begun 2.6 million years ago and has been characterised by the advance and retreat of major glaciers and ice sheets in glacial periods punctuated by warmer interglacial periods. The last glacial period – or what is popularly known as the last Ice Age - began 110,000 years ago and ended with the onset of the Holocene epoch 11,600 years ago. The Ice Age is not in fact at an end and barring the effects of global warming, the glaciers and ice sheets will one day return.

The origins of the current Ice Age go back some 50 million years. Throughout this time the Earth’s climate has been cooling. Though the reasons are not fully understood, the collision of India with the Eurasian landmass (48-52 million years ago) and the migration of Antarctica to the South Pole (23 million years ago) are thought to be factors. From the first of these two events arose the mountains of the Himalaya Range, uplifted by the collision. The weathering of this new mountain range sequestered CO2 from the atmosphere, leading to global cooling. Subsequently the presence of a large landmass at the South Pole encouraged the build-up of ice. These ice-sheets reflected more of the Sun’s radiation back into space leading, in turn, to further cooling. The tipping point was reached 2.6 million years ago, with the expansion of ice sheets in the Northern Hemisphere.

Discovery: Perhaps surprisingly, the discovery that the northern glaciers had once been far more extensive, reaching as far south as London, New York and Berlin, is comparatively recent. Not until the 19th Century did geologists began to ponder such anomalies as bones of reindeer in the south of France and granite boulders high up on the slopes of the predominantly limestone Jura Mountains. The German-Swiss geologist Jean de Charpentier suspected that the boulders might have been deposited there by glaciers. He discussed the idea with his friend and fellow geologist Louis Agassiz, who took it up with great enthusiasm.

Meanwhile the naturalist Karl Friedrich Schimper, who was also a friend of Agassiz, was also of the opinion that ice sheets had once been far more extensive than now, and had once lain across much of Eurasia and North America. But he was a man who very rarely put his ideas into writing. He did however lend Agassiz his notes, but to his and de Charpentier’s considerable annoyance Agassiz subsequently took all the credit for the theory, which he put forward in a two-volume work entitled Etudes sur les glaciers (Study on Glaciers), published in 1840.

The main problem with the theory as it stood was that it offered no explanation for the cycles between glacial and interglacial periods. That these might have an astronomical cause was first suggested by Scottish scientist James Croll in 1860, who claimed that cyclical changes in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun might be responsible. Croll’s theory attracted considerable interest at the time, but had been more or less abandoned by the end of the 19th Century. The theory was revived and extended in the 1920s and 1930s by a Serbian engineer named Milutin Milanković.

The Milanković Pacemaker: The Earth’s seasons arise from its axis of spin being tilted rather than upright in relation to the plane of its orbit. When either the Northern or the Southern Hemisphere is tilted towards the Sun, it will experience summer as a result of both longer hours of daylight and the Sun being higher in the sky and more of its heat reaching the ground. The other hemisphere, meanwhile, will experience winter. For the Northern Hemisphere, the day with the longest period of daylight or Summer Solstice occurs on 21 June. The day with the shortest period of daylight or Winter Solstice occurs on 21 December. The spring and autumn equinoxes occur when the Earth is mid-way between the solstice positions, and everywhere receives 12 hours of daylight.

At the present time in the Northern Hemisphere, summers are hot enough to melt the whole of the previous winter’s accumulation of snow, but if this was not the case then the latter would gradually build up and ice sheets would advance into temperate latitudes. The enlarged ice sheets would then reflect more of the Sun’s radiation straight back into space, causing the cooling process to accelerate.

Milanković considered the possible effects of astronomical cycles on the intensity of the seasons, the amount of sunlight received (“insolation”) in the Northern Hemisphere and the possibility that at certain times the summers in the Northern Hemisphere might not be hot enough to prevent ice sheets from building up. He took into account three variables now known as the Milanković Cycles: precession of the equinoxes; variation of the axial tilt (“obliquity”) and changes in the shape of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun (“eccentricity”).

Precession is the long-term oscillation experienced by the Earth in which the spatial orientation of the axis changes with time. The phenomenon may be likened to the wobbling of a spinning-top or a gyroscope and is caused by caused by tidal effects of the Moon and Sun. A complete cycle takes 25,800 years. Precession affects the time of the year when the Earth is at is closest to the Sun (“perihelion”), which in turn will affect the intensity of the seasons. The picture is complicated by the precession of the orbit itself, with the perihelion slowly migrating around the Sun in a 105,000 year cycle. If these are combined with cyclical changes in the shape of the Earth’s orbit, a periodicity of 21,700 years is obtained for perihelion coinciding with summer in each hemisphere.

The Earth’s axial tilt is currently 23.5 degrees, but varies between 21.8 and 24.4 degrees over a period of 41,000 years. The seasons for both hemispheres will be exaggerated when the angle of tilt is high and moderated when it is low.

Finally the Earth’s orbit changes from near-circular (“low eccentricity”) to an ellipse (“high eccentricity”) with a major cycle of 400,000 years and a number of smaller cycles that average out at 100,000 years. At times of high eccentricity, the seasons are exaggerated in the hemisphere experiencing summer close to perihelion, and moderated in the other.

How these differing cycles combine to either exaggerate or moderate the seasons is of course very complicated, and Milanković spent many years laboriously performing the relevant calculations which – in an era before computers – all had to be carried out with the aid of a slide rule and books of tables. Unfortunately his dates for glacial periods did not tally with the then accepted values, and his theory fell out of favour. However in the late 1960s and early 1970s advances in methods for dating proxy evidence (indications of glacial periods) vindicated Milanković’s predictions and his theory gained widespread acceptance.

Although the duration of glacial periods is now seen to correspond closely to expectations, different cycles seem to have dominated at different times. Prior to 800,000 years ago, glacial periods followed the 41,000 year obliquity cycle, but subsequently the 100,000 year orbital eccentricity cycle has been dominant.

Effect upon Sea Levels: During glacial periods, significant amounts of water are locked up in ice sheets and sea levels fall. At the time of the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), when the ice sheets reached their maximum extent, 20,000 years ago, sea levels were roughly 120 metres below their present-day level. Britain and Ireland were joined to continental Europe and the Indonesian islands as far east as Borneo and Bali were joined to mainland Asia as part of a subcontinental landmass known as Sundaland. Australia was connected to New Guinea and Tasmania and though it remained separate from Sundaland, the gap was small and could be crossed by humans living at that time.

Effect upon Climate: During the LGM, the climate throughout the world was cooler and dryer. The arid conditions were a consequence of so much water being locked up in ice sheets. In some parts of the world such as Southern Australia and the Sahel Belt south of the Sahara, rainfall dropped by up to 90 percent. Throughout the world deserts expanded and rainforest shrank.

During interglacial periods, the climate is warmer and wetter. In Africa, a weather phenomenon known as in Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), which normally brings monsoons to the tropics, can extend its influence northwards. During such epochs, the Sahara experiences moist wet conditions and savannah climate. The last such climatic optimum was the Holocene Thermal Optimum, which began at the end of the last glacial period and peaked around 4000 BC. Subsequently, Milanković-determined insolation declined, the ITCZ returned southwards and the Sahara rapidly dried up.


Bryson, B. (2003) A Short History of Nearly Everything, Doubleday.
Evans, E.P. (1887) The North American review, Volume 145, Issue 368, July 1887.
Klein, R. (1999) The Human Career (2nd Edition), University of Chicago Press.
Wilson, R.C.L., Drury S.A. and Chapman J.L. (2000) The Great Ice Age, Routledge.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Thursday, 25 December 2008

The Star

Attempts to seek an astronomical explanation for the Star of Bethlehem are in my view misguided. Relatively common events such as planetary conjunctions, comets or bright meteors would not have persuaded three wise men worthy of the name to stock up on gold, frankincense and myrrh and head west to Bethlehem in search of the Messiah, dropping in on King Herod en route. The people of the East were sophisticated astronomers who had in all probability been studying the heavens since prehistoric times, and they would have been aware that these things were nothing out of the ordinary.

More feasible is the idea that they saw a supernova - an event of the type that might only happen every few centuries. This idea formed the basis of Sir Arthur C. Clarke's classic short story The Star, about a Catholic priest who queried his faith when he realised the explosion had wiped out an alien civilization. More recently, American cosmologist Frank Tipler has suggested that a Type 1C hypernova - a stupendously powerful supernova - in the Andromeda Galaxy was what the Magi might have seen.

But even the supernova theory has one fatal flaw. The world at around 4 BC - the presumptive birth date of Christ - lay well within the realms of recorded history, and a supernova had it occurred would have been widely noted and recorded. But the Star of Bethlehem is attested only once, in the Gospel according to St Matthew (Matt 2: 1-12), which is believed to have actually been written by an anonymous Christian decades after the events it describes.

It is far more likely that that the reference to a star is no more than a metaphor, rather like the present-day usage of the word to describe notable actors, footballers, musicians, etc and that the "star" of Bethlehem is simply an allusion to Jesus rather than an astronomical phenomenon.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Monday, 15 December 2008

Colour-change Paperweight

Alexandrite is an extremely rare gemstone with the property to change from purple to green. It appears purple under artificial light and green when viewed in daylight. The gemstone is named for Tsar Alexander II of Russia, on whose 16th birthday it was discovered, and fine examples can cost up to $100,000 per carat. I was quite astonished to discover that a rather less expensive Caithness glass paperweight in my possession for the last twenty years can do more or less the same thing! In daylight, or under normal incandescent or halogen lighting it appears a rich purple:

But I recently installed compact flourescent lighting, and under this the paperweight turns blue:

The likely explanation for this phenomenon is that the purple-coloured glass contains a mixture of red and blue colourants. Under daylight or a continuous-spectrum artificial light, these appear purple. However flourescent lighting is deficiant in red wavelengths and when illuminated by such lighting, the red colourants are not seen, causing the paperweight to appear blue.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Aboriginal Australian Art on Coins

Modern humans are believed to have reached Australia from 40,000 to 50,000 years ago (e.g. Scarre, 2005; Wade, 2007) and possibly even earlier (e.g. Wells, 2002; Oppenheimer, 2003). There is little doubt that these first Australians possessed the capacity for art and were in all probability producing artwork at the same time as their European counterparts were adorning the Chauvet Cave in France, but the earliest known Aboriginal Australian rock art dates from 20,000-30,000 years ago (Scarre, 2005). It is possible that works predating these were located in coastal regions that were inundated when sea-levels rose at the end of the last Ice Age, as indeed happened in Europe where some cave art, such as that at Cosquer Cave near Marseille, can now only be accessed by scuba divers.

Today, Aboriginal Australian art is widely admired and, inevitably, it has featured periodically on Australian coinage. The Royal Australian Mint in Canberra is one of two mints operating in Australia and some of its numismatic offerings are produced in direct competition to those from its older counterpart, the Perth Mint. One of the most appealing coins it has produced is the Kangaroo, a one ounce silver bullion coin with a face value of Aus $1, featuring a changing design based on the marsupial mammal that has become virtually synonymous with Australia. Different artists are featured each year, but the most vibrant designs so far seen were those of the mini-series by Aboriginal Australian artists that ran between 2001 and 2003.

The 2001 design was by Jeanette Timberly, of the Bidjigal Tribe. She was born in La Perouse, NSW.

The 2002 design was by Mark Nodea of the Gija Tribe in Eastern Kimberley, WA. He was born in Derby, WA in 1968. He currently resides in Kununurra and is former Chairperson of the Warmun Art Centre. Mark is a Traditional ochre artist but he works in other media and is also noted for his charcoal sketches and figurative acrylic works.

The 2003 design was by Ray Thomas of the Gunnai people of Victoria. He was born in Melbourne in 1960. See his personal website.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Thursday, 11 December 2008


First broadcast on 19 January 1967, the Star Trek episode Arena is generally regarded as being one of the most memorable episodes from the Original series. The screenplay was written by Gene L. Coon and officially it is based on a short story of the same name by Fredric Brown, first published in the June 1944 issue of Astounding magazine. Brown receives a story credit at the end of the episode. However it has been claimed that the similarity between the short story and Coon’s screenplay was only noticed after the latter had been written and that Brown was totally unaware of this when he agreed a fee for the use of his work!

In the Star Trek episode, the USS Enterprise goes in pursuit of a Gorn warship which has made a seemingly unprovoked attack on the Federation outpost on Cestus III, but as the chase leads into an unexplored sector of space, both ships are brought to a grinding halt by omnipotent beings calling themselves the Metrons. Kirk is informed that he will be teleported to a life-sustaining planet together with the captain of the Gorn ship. He will have no weapons or means of contacting the Enterprise and he must fight the Gorn to the death. The winner and his ship will be allowed to go free, but the loser will be destroyed, together with his ship. He will be provided with a recording device and the planet will contain the resources needed to make weapons.

Without any further ado, Kirk finds himself facing the Gorn on the hot, arid surface of an unknown planet (actually Vasquez Rocks, California). The Gorn is a huge, reptilian being and it soon becomes clear that Kirk is no match for him. Kirk hurls a rock at the Gorn, who merely hurls a much larger one back. Kirk then rolls a huge boulder on top of the Gorn. This which seems to have done the trick – but the Gorn revives and pushes the boulder aside. Kirk runs, but falling into a snare set for him by the Gorn. He manages to escape, but is injured in the process. By now he is tiring and the Gorn – by means of the recording device which is also a two-way radio – appeals to him to give up and promises to kill him quickly. Kirk also learns that the Cestus III outpost had been set up in Gorn territory, and the attack was made because the Gorn feared it was the precursor to an all-out invasion.

But Kirk then realises that there are indeed enough natural resources on the planet to make a weapon. Using sulphur, coal and saltpetre he makes gunpowder; this he loads into a gun barrel made from a bamboo-like plant together with some extremely large diamonds – “the hardest material in the universe”.

Kirk manages to disable the Gorn with this crude weapon, but he then refuses to kill his enemy. The Metrons are impressed by this “advanced trait” of mercy and allow both ships to go on their way.

Possibly because they weren’t bad guys after all, the Gorn never again made a major appearance in any Star Trek series. But if the Gorn were never seen again, the plot-line to Arena most definitely was.

It appeared in a second-season episode of Space 1999 entitled The Rules of Luton, set on an alien planet called Luton. You are reading this correctly. There really was an episode of Space 1999 set on a planet called Luton, albeit pronounced with the stress on the second syllable.

Plants are the dominant form of life on Luton, and when Koenig and Maya are dropped off by Verdecci in an Eagle spacecraft and begin helping themselves to some tempting-looking berries, the locals aren’t amused. They are ordered to fight a group of three alien trespassers to the death. Maya’s shape-shifting abilities prove to be a two-edged sword. She turns into a lion, startling one alien to the extent that it falls into a river and drowns. A second alien is soon dealt with but after Maya turns into a hawk in order to carry out some aerial reconnaisance, she is captured by the remaining alien and shut up in a birdcage.

She can only hold her form for an hour, at the end of which she will return to human form and be crushed to death. Why she doesn’t simply escape by turning into an insect (as she did in a later episode) isn’t made clear. How Maya can turn into creatures of such varying sizes and of course masses also remains unclear, but as noted in an earlier entry the screen writers of Space 1999 never let the laws of physics get in the way of a good story, much less a crap one like this. Inevitably Koenig rescues Maya and soon has the remaining alien at his mercy, refuses to kill him, and is allowed to go free by the Judges of Luton.

The writers of Blake’s Seven obviously believed they could improve on this lacklustre offering and came up with Duel, a title that at least subtly acknowledges the story’s origin. In this incarnation, the Liberator is recharging its batteries when it is attacked by a battlegroup of Federation pursuit ships, with the villainous Travis and his Mutoid pilot (exclusively female blood-sucking cyborgs that foreshadowed Star Trek’s Seven of Nine) in charge of the lead ship.

With escape impossible, Blake and co have no choice but to fight, but the battle is soon brought to a halt by a bunch of bare-breasted women on a nearby planet, who intend to show the combatants “the meaning of death”. Blake and Jenna are transported to the planet and ordered to fight Travis and his sexy sidekick to the death. The winners will be allowed to go free, the losers' ship will be destroyed, etc, etc.

Jenna is soon captured and tied up, and the Mutoid, who is feeling a little peckish, begins eying her up as her next meal. But Travis insists on keeping Jenna alive to act as bait for Blake. Needless to say the plan backfires when the Mutoid is forced to snack on local wildlife and finds it disagrees with her. Blake soon rescues Jenna, has Travis at his mercy, refuses to kill him and impresses the bare-breasted women, etc, etc.

That to the best of my knowledge was the last TV adaptation of Frederic Brown’s tale, and it is to this which I now turn.

Carson (who like most SF heroes of that era doesn't appear to have a first name) is the pilot of a small one-man scout ship on the outskirts of a huge battle fleet that is about engage a fleet of alien vessels. The aliens, known as the Outsiders have been involved with a number of skirmishes with Earth ships and colonies.

All of a sudden Carson finds himself naked in a small enclosed, circular area. His opponent is a red, tentacled sphere about three foot across, which he refers to as a Roller. A voice informs him that the stakes are rather higher than those that will one day be set for Kirk, Koenig and Blake – should he lose the entire human race will be destroyed. The story then develops into a battle between Carson and the Roller, but there is one major difference between Frederic Brown’s short story and all the TV adaptations it inspired.

At the climax of the story, Carson does kill his opponent.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Bunsfield Oil Depot Fire

Three years ago today, shortly after six in the morning, the Bunsfield Oil Depot near Hemel Hempstead was rocked by a series of massive explosions which were heard as far away as France and Holland (though I failed to hear them from North London). By the time I heard the news, about three hours later, it was clear that nobody had been killed. I was nevertheless very relieved to make contact with my sister and my nephew, who live just two miles away from the depot. They’d been woken by the blast, but it had done no damage. It was also clear by that time that the explosion was an accident and not a result of a terrorist attack.

During the afternoon I took a number of photographs from Hampstead Heath, from which the smoky cloud from the fire could clearly be seen staining the sky:

I then drove to St Albans, from where a huge plume of smoke was clearly visible:

The soot in the atmosphere resulted in a dramatic, Krakatoa-like sunset.

The M1 was closed to traffic. I took this shot from a bridge over the motorway, about a couple of miles from the depot:

Illuminated by the setting sun, the smoke was rolling directly overhead, producing this almost apocalyptic view:

Another view, from Leverstock Green, about a mile away from the fire. Warning sirens could clearly be heard:

The aftermath. Badly damaged industrial units close to ground zero, as seen on Christmas Day:

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Stowa Marine Original

Even those of us whose knowledge of watches extends beyond Rolex, Omega, Tag-Heuer, Seiko and Casio may not necessarily have heard of Stowa. This German watch brand was established in 1927 by Walter Storz and remains independent to this day. Its name is derived from that of Storz – S-T-O(rz), W-A(lter).

Stowa have throughout their existence concentrated on reasonably-priced watches of good quality. Currently costs are kept down by selling almost exclusively on-line.

One of the most attractive watches in their current line-up is the Marine Original which, according to the Stowa website, is “inspired by the observation watches once used on navy ships”.

The watch houses a Swiss-made UNITAS 6498 17-jewel manual-wind movement, upgraded by Stowa with a screwed balance and a swan-neck regulator. The movement is attractively finished, if not to Patek standards, certainly to a level that belies the watch's price.

Originally designed for pocket watches, the UNITAS has been in production since the early 1950s and is sometimes cited as the finest pocket watch movement ever made. In recent years the trend towards larger wristwatches has given it a new lease on life, and modified versions are used in some very exclusive watch brands, including Omega and Panerai.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Church Loft, West Wycombe, Bucks

West Wycombe, Bucks is a small village located three miles west of High Wycombe, on the road to Oxford. This building with its large clock is known as the Church Loft, and dates to the early 15th Century. This extract from a 2005 Wycombe District Council character conservation area survey:

Church Loft is one of the oldest buildings in the village,having been dated to the early 15th century.The building is timber framed, with later brick infill, and the upperfloor oversails both front and rear on moulded bressumer beams,and is an open hall.The lower floor seems to have been small medieval shop units, although later records suggest they were used as tenements during the 19thcentury. The left hand bay is open as a carriagewayto Church Lane and contains the Village lock-up and whipping post. The right hand bay may also once have been open. The upper floor of the building has an open queen post roof. The Church Loft has a bell turret, and a particularly fine clock (dated 1668) overhanging the street. The clock mechanism remains within the Church Loft.

Photograph and original content © Christopher Seddon 2008

Wednesday, 3 December 2008


© Christopher Seddon 2008

Monday, 24 November 2008

Fulham Gasholders

Photographed shortly after a heavy shower and just minutes before sunset, these rusting gasholders are transformed by ideal lighting conditions into sculptural objects of undeniable beauty.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Three Lions on a House

James Nichols was a speculative builder who was responsible for the Peterborough Estate in Fulham and a number of properties in Barnes, all of which are adorned by sitting lion finials. Erected around 1890, the now highly sought after properties are inevitably known as "Lion houses" by local estate agents.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Monday, 17 November 2008

Tiergarten in Autumn

Spectacular autumnal colours in Berlin's Tiergarten on the afternoon of 12 October 2008. The Reichstag can be seen through the trees in the second and fourth images.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Pocket Watch of J.G. Seddon

This US-made Waltham pocket watch was presented to my grandfather John Glanville Seddon for his services in World War I.

The inscription reads “Presented to Cllr. J.G. Seddon by the people of Farnworth in recognition of distinguished services rendered in the Great War 1914-1918”. My grandfather served as a councillor and became Mayor of Farnworth, Lancashire in 1957.

The back of the watch has the monogram JGS.

The watch utilises the then widely-used American Traveller movement. It is in full working order.

The watch passed to my father, screenwriter Jack Seddon, who as mentioned elsewhere on this blog, served in the RAF during World War II. It passed in turn to me after my father’s death in 2001.

I am posting this entry on Armistice Day, 2008, on the 90th anniversary of the ending of World War I.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Saturday, 8 November 2008

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1898)

Asked to compile a list of the ten most famous science fiction novels ever written, one might include 2001: A Space Odyssey by Sir Arthur C. Clarke, The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, Dune by Frank Herbert, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth - and no fewer than three works by H.G. Wells: The Time Machine, The First Men in the Moon and The War of the Worlds.

While most of the above have been filmed, The War of the Worlds has to date spawned two major motion pictures, a number of radio dramas – one of which launched the career of HGW’s near-namesake Orson Welles, a TV series and one of the most successful concept albums of the 1970s.

It has inspired numerous other dramatisations including the 1980s miniseries “V” (which picked up on the idea of humans as a food source for aliens) and the 1996 movie Independence Day (in which the aliens are defeated by a computer virus rather than earthly bacteria). Even Dr Who’s arch-enemies the Daleks can probably trace their origins back to the Martian tripod fighting machines and their tentacled occupants.

The novel opens with the famous line “Nobody would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s”. Nobody would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century just how many times that line would have to be updated.

The original novel is actually set at the beginning of the last century, a few years ahead of the time it was written. The unnamed narrator is what would now be known as a popular science writer who lives with his equally nameless wife in Horsell near Woking in Surrey. They apparently have no children.

The narrator meets the renowned astronomer Ogilvy at his observatory in Ottershaw and observes a disturbance on Mars which turns out to be the launching of a Martian projectile. In all, ten projectiles are launched at almost exactly 24 hour intervals. (This would not in fact result in them all landing in the same place, as both Earth and Mars are in motion around the Sun.)

Wells followed Jules Verne 35 years earlier in using a space-gun to travel between worlds though for his later (1903) novel The First Men in the Moon he sent his travellers to the Moon in a spacecraft using a “Cavorite” anti-gravity screen, and was roundly criticised by the by now elderly Verne for so doing!

Some time later, the first Martian projectile lands on Horsell Common and attracts a crowd of curious onlookers, including the narrator. But the cylinder unscrews, tentacled creatures emerge and blast an approaching delegation, including Ogilvy, with a heat ray. The narrator hires a horse-drawn vehicle from a local publican and takes his wife and their valuables to stay with relatives in Leatherhead. Unfortunately he has to return the carriage and before he can return to Leatherhead he is caught up in the invasion as the Martians have now deployed tripod fighting machines and have broken though army units surrounding their projectile. The narrator meets up with an artilleryman whose unit has been wiped out and learns that more Martians have landed at Addlestone, making a return to Leatherhead impossible.

The narrator witnesses a battle at Shepperton, during which one Martian tripod is destroyed and a second is damaged by artillery fire. During the battle the narrator is separated from the artilleryman. The Martians regroup and change tactics, flooding areas where artillery batteries may be concealed with a chemical weapon known as Black Smoke.

As more projectiles land across South East England, the first signs that things are awry are seen during the Sunday afternoon as people on day trips to the suburbs begin returning by train unusually early and a few refugees are seen in Oxford Street. However panic breaks out early on Monday morning and millions of Londoners flee the Martian advance, including the narrator’s brother, a medical student, who together a woman named Mrs Elphinstone and her sister reach the coast and board a paddle steamer bound for Ostend.

Off the Essex coast they witness the battle between the warship HMS Thunder Child and the Martians. The Thunder Child goes to the aid of a ferry being menaced by a group of Martian tripods and destroys two of them before succumbing herself. The ferry escapes.

Thunder Child is described as an “ironclad torpedo ram” by Wells. The Royal Navy only ever had one ship of this type, HMS Polyphemus – a coastal defence ship armed with torpedoes, a ram and machine guns. She had no armaments capable of engaging a Martian fighting machine.

It was common practice at the time to equip warships with rams, but the tactic was little used after the Battle of Lissa in 1866. In 1893 - in what was probably the most spectacular own goal in naval history – the battleship HMS Victoria was sunk in a collision with HMS Camperdown as a result of a botched manoeuvre ordered by Vice-Admiral Sir George Tryon. Camperdown’s ram inflicted fatal damage on the Victoria, which foundered in a matter of minutes. Tryon was among the 358 who lost their lives in the disaster. Rams were abandoned thereafter. It seems more likely that Thunder Child was an armoured cruiser or a battleship. She is indeed depicted as the latter on the album cover of the Jeff Wayne musical version, more of which anon.

The battle between HMS Thunder Child and the Martians concludes the first part of the novel.

The focus then switches back to the narrator, who takes shelter in a house in Halliford, accompanied by a curate. The building is almost destroyed when a Martian projectile lands close by and the pair are unable to escape for fear of attracting the Martians. They are able to see the Martians going about their business and see humans being drained of blood, which the Martians inject directly into their bodies for sustenance. The humans have been collected by fighting machines, some of which are equipped with baskets for the purpose. Thus the narrator learns what the future holds for humanity under Martian rule. The curate – already traumatized by the invasion and behaving erratically – begins making so much noise that the narrator is forced to kill him before his ravings attract the Martians.

The Martians leave after 15 days and the narrator emerges to find red Martian weed everywhere. He falls in with the artilleryman he met earlier. The artilleryman is delusional, believing he can singlehandedly rebuild civilization and retake Earth from the invaders. The narrator leaves him and makes for London, which is deserted and fully under the control of the Martians. But soon afterwards both the Martians and the red weed begin to die. They have no immunity to Earth’s pathogenic bacteria and viruses – “slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon the earth.” This is the only reference to God having anything to do with the defeat of the Martians.

The narrator learns that Leatherhead was destroyed by the Martians and believes his wife to have been killed but on returning to Woking, finds her alive and well in his house.

Speculation that the Martians may try again, but astronomers suggest they may have mounted an invasion of Venus.

Belief that Mars was a dying planet was widespread at the time. The then-prevalent model of the formation of the Solar System, put forward by Pierre-Simon Laplace in 1796, proposed that the planets had been formed from a contracting cloud of proto-solar matter. As the cloud contracted, planets condensed out of material, with outermost planets being formed first. Thus Mars was believed to be older than Earth, and probably dying; and Venus was younger and possibly habitable. The Laplace model had to be abandoned, because it did not account for the observed distribution of angular momentum within the Solar System, but not until the 1960s was the true nature of Mars and Venus revealed when they were first visited by unmanned US and Soviet space probes.

The War of the Worlds was influenced by fear that Britain would be invaded – like later versions, the original novel reflected contemporary fears.

Orson Welles notorious 1938 adaptation for radio was an episode of the American radio series Mercury Theatre on the Air, broadcast by CBS on October 30, 1938. It was presented as a series of simulated news bulletins, which led many listeners to believe that an actual Martian invasion was in progress, though the actual degree of panic has almost certainly been exaggerated.

The location was changed from South East England to Grover’s Hill, NJ and Welles plays the “famous astronomer” whose name is changed from the quintessentially English Ogilvy to Pierson. The Martians advance on New York City and are opposed by artillery and bombers. The gunners damage one tripod and another is destroyed by the bombers, but more Martian cylinders are landing all over the country.

A news reporter broadcasting from the CBS building describes the Martian invasion of New York City — machines wading across the Hudson River, poison smoke drifting over the city, people running and diving into the East River "like rats", others "falling like flies" — until he, too, succumbs to the poison gas.

Following an intermission, Professor Pierson describes the aftermath of the attacks, which ended when the Martians were killed by terrestrial pathogens as in the novel.

The broadcast and its attendant panic was itself the subject of the 1975 TV movie The Night that Panicked America.

The 1953 movie was produced by Hungarian-born George Pal, who had previously produced the 1951 doomsday epic When Worlds Collide. Screenplay was by Barre Lyndon. It starred Gene Barry, Ann Robinson (no relation) and Lewis Martin.

The film opens with an updated version of its famous opening sentence, spoken by Cedric Hardwicke. “Nobody would have believed in the middle of the twentieth century...” Hardwicke then describes the Martian deliberations as to where they could go to escape from their dying world as they consider the Solar System’s other planets, accompanied by memorable art-work by Chesley Bonestell. For some reason, though, Venus is not mentioned.

The location this time is southern California. What is at first believed to be a meteorite lands near Linda Rosa, near Los Angeles, and is investigated by physicist Clayton Forrester (Barry) and local residents including Sylvia van Buren (Robinson) and her uncle, Pastor Dr. Matthew Collins (Martin). The object is too hot for an immediate investigation, so Forrester decides to return to the town while it cools down.

Three men are left by the local sheriff to guard the object, but it unscrews and deploys a Heat Ray device which kills the men as they approach it. The blast also brings down pylons, plunging Linda Rosa into darkness and starting fires. Everybody’s watch stops. Forrester returns with the sheriff to investigate and discover the remains of the three men. Their driver panics and drives off without them – but is blasted by the Martian heat-ray. A second inbound Martian spacecraft is seen passing overhead.

Forrester recommends calling in the military and a force of Marines surrounds the impact site. The Martians deploy three fighting machines.

The tripods are replaced by sleek copper-coloured manta-ray like machines, which float above the ground on beams of electromagnetic force. They are armed with a heat-ray mounted on a cobra-like projection, and wingtip-mounted secondary weapons shooting green bolts that cause their targets to disintegrate.

The curate of the original becomes Sylvia van Buren’s kindly uncle, Pastor Dr. Matthew Collins, an altogether more sympathetic character who goes out to meet the Martians, Bible in hand, reading the 23rd Psalm. He is promptly blasted with a heat-ray – to Sylvia’s predictable horror, and setting a strongly religious tone for the rest of the movie.

The Marines open fire, but their concentrated bombardment is completely ineffective. Unlike Wells’ original fighting machines, which could be taken out by early 20th Century weaponry, these machines are seemingly invulnerable.

Forrester and the distraught Sylvia van Buren flee in a light aeroplane, ahead of an attack on the Martian nest by the USAF. They fly too low in order to avoid the incoming bombers, clip a tree and crash. They are unhurt and take shelter in a deserted farmhouse. Meanwhile the Martians destroy the force of bombers.

A Martian spaceship lands near the farmhouse, partially destroying it. While Forrester and van Buren hide, a Martian – who bears more than a passing resemblance to Spielberg’s ET – investigates the farmhouse. A remote camera spots the pair. Forrester hacks off the camera and the pair flee the farmhouse just before the Martians blast it. They also have a sample of Martian blood. They make it back to LA safely and rejoin their colleagues. The blood turns out to be anaemic, suggesting the Martians might be rather less mighty than their machines.

But by now the Martians are causing devastation on a global scale with all attempts to halt them ending in defeat. A decision is made to use nuclear weapons. A flying-wing aircraft nukes the group outside LA, but the fighting machines are not damaged. Forrester realise that mankind’s only hope is to fight the Martians, not their machines.

The Martians begin to move towards the city. Forrester’s colleagues evacuate in a bus with Forrester following with the vital blood samples in a pickup truck. They are attacked by panicky residents trying to get out of the city. Forrester tries to find Sylvia. He remembers that as a child her uncle, Matthew Collins, once found her hiding in a church, and he figures that’s where she’ll be.

The Martians have by now entered Los Angeles, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake and blasting the iconic City Hall. Meanwhile the churches are doing a roaring trade, packed out with Los Angelinos praying for deliverance. Not until the third one does Forrester locate Sylvia. By this time the Martians are close at hand. A heat-ray takes out a stained-glass window and part of the building collapses. But suddenly the attack halts. The fighting machines begin falling to the ground. One of them opens up, but when Forrester investigates he finds its occupant dead.

Hardwicke’s voice-over explains that the Martians had no defence against earthly bacteria, but the ending, with its church bells and hymns, implies that that it was God who really deserved the credit and that the attack on a church was the last straw that convinced Him to put the boot in on the Martians.

Like the original, this movie was strongly influence by contemporary fears and its religiousness is undoubtedly a Cold War reaction to the atheism of the USSR. (In addition there was an obvious connection between Communists and hostile beings from the Red Planet!)

It is often said that the 1953 movie bears little resemblance to the original novel but common elements can be recognised: Forrester is a conflation of the narrator and Ogilvy; in both versions a delegation of three men try to make friendly contact and are wiped out; military surround the initial landing site; and both versions have a scene in which the main character is trapped in the basement of a building partially destroyed by the landing of a Martian projectile.

A quarter of a century later, in 1978, rock musician Jeff Wayne released a musical version, a double album that was narrated by Richard Burton. It remained in the UK album charts for 290 weeks and remains popular three decades later, with a live tour in 2006.

A TV series of The War of the Worlds appeared in 1988. Intended as a sequel to the 1953 movie, it was hamstrung by the ludicrous idea that due to a government cover-up and a condition known as “selective amnesia”, nobody could remember the invasion of 1953, despite the devastating attacks on Los Angeles and other cities around the world. The aliens – who it turned out were not from Mars but a distant planet called Mortax – had merely been put into suspended animation by Earthly bacteria. Why nobody noticed this in 1953 is among the many things this series left unexplained.

The comatose aliens were stored in metal drums in various army bases around the world; in the case of those in United States these drums happened to be stored near some radioactive waste that was released when the base was attacked by terrorists. This killed off the bacteria and revived the aliens, who far from being the puny, anaemic creatures of the movie possess considerably more upper-body strength than a human. Rather more worryingly, they can also take over human bodies. They start with the six terrorists.

The government form a group to tackle the threat, headed up by Dr. Harrison Blackwood (Jared Martin), adopted son of Clayton Forrester. The top-secret Blackwood Project also includes microbiologist Suzanne McCullough (Linda Mason Green), her daughter Debi (Rachel Blanchard), wheelchair-bound computer wizard Norton Drake (Philip Akin) and Native American military man Lt. Col. Paul Ironhorse (Richard Chaves). Ann Robinson made special guest appearances reprising her role of Sylvia van Buren.

The aliens were led by a ruling triumvirate known as the Advocacy, whose catch-phrase was “To Life Immortal”. Early on, they established a base of operations in the Nevada Desert, where radiation from bomb testing kept earthly bacteria at bay. Their objective was to continue their 1953 mission of eliminating humanity, to make way for three million colonists en-route from Mortax.

The series was notable for its level of violence. Discarded human hosts would simply disintegrate into a mess of steaming slime and episodes frequently dwelt on the terror of human captives – the equivalent of Star Trek’s “redshirts” - waiting to be used as hosts or in one of the Mortaxans’ fiendish experiments. Rarely did this add anything to the story; one exception was when Blackwood fell in love with a woman who had (temporarily) escaped the Mortaxans’ clutches.

Blackwood and his team rarely came out on top, though they did succeed in thwarting every attempt by the aliens to recapture their fighting machines. Three of these had been stored at Area 51; another was buried at Grover’s Mill after the abortive 1938 invasion (Orson Welles’ broadcast was part of a government cover-up); and an earlier tripod model had been left on Native American land. To deal with the latter, Blackwood called on the aid of a shaman, who used supernatural power to destroy it.

For the show’s second season, the format was changed considerably. After a battle with the aliens that left Lt. Col Ironhorse and Norton Drake dead, the Blackwood Project was disowned by the government and the survivors were forced to go underground, where they were joined by John Kinkaid (Adrian Paul). Meanwhile, a second group of Mortaxans (the Morthren) arrived and began executing the first lot, who passively accepted their fate despite outnumbering the newcomers at least ten-to-one. The Morthren cloned humans rather than take over their bodies as their predecessors had done.

Innumerable loose ends from the first season remained unresolved – these included the fate of Quinn, a duplicitous survivor of the 1953 invasion who was immune to infection; and that of the Synth, a sexy punk female android who zapped Mortaxans at will, but only to preserve humanity as a source of food. Also unexplained was how the world had apparently deteriorated into a post-apocalyptic society overnight.

Towards the end of the second season, the show was cancelled and a concluding episode had the majority of the Morthren killed off in various battles, and the remainder suing for peace and agreeing to work with mankind to restore Earth.

The most recent outing for H.G. Wells’ now venerable tale was the 2005 movie by Stephen Spielburg, which starred Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin and Tim Robbins. Morgan Freeman speaks the opening voice-over, now updated to “the early years of the 21st Century”. The definite article is dropped from the movie title.

Although again set in the US, this version is truer to the original novel, following an ordinary man and his family trying to survive the invasion. Spielberg has however worked in elements from both the 1938 radio broadcast and the 1953 movie. The movie makes extensive use of Spielberg’s trademark lighting effects and a Hitchcock-like soundtrack (by John Williams) and draws on his earlier works involving (considerably more friendly) aliens. Those familiar with the 1953 version will recognise several lines of dialogue lifted from it. Early in the movie a van Buren Street is seen (albeit presumably named for President van Buren) and Gene Barry and Ann Robinson from the 1953 movie make cameo appearances.

Like the novel and the 1953 movie, this version plays on contemporary fears – in this case those of America a little under four years after 9/11.

Ray Farrier (Cruise) is a dock worker from Newark NJ (the 1938 Martians also landed in New Jersey). His young daughter Rachel (Fanning) and rebellious teenaged son Robbie (Chatwin) are staying with him for the weekend, having been dropped off for the weekend by his ex-wife Mary-Anne and her husband Tim, with whom he remains on reasonably good terms. Mary-Anne and Tim are going to Boston for the weekend to stay with the former’s parents (Barry and Robinson).

The fighting machines of the invaders revert to tripods, but instead of arriving from out of space they were buried in the ground thousands of years ago and are activated by freak electrical storms occurring all over the world. It later emerged that the storms were energy discharges produced by pods containing the aliens being inserted into their fighting machines.

The invaders’ homeworld is never revealed. At the start of the movie, a shot of Earth seen from outer space fades to a red disk, suggesting Mars – but it then turns out to be a red traffic light. Some have taken this to mean Mars but I’d take it to mean the opposite, deliberately rejecting a connection with Mars.

Electro-motive pulses from the storm causes Ray’s vintage Omega to stop – a double reference to the 1953 movie where watches were found to have stopped and that the watch itself (a gold manual wind chronograph) dates to the 1950s. In fact a watch from the pre-quartz era is probably one thing that would not be affected an electro-motive pulse. Also it would take rather more than changing the solenoids (as Ray advises a mechanic) in any car more recent than 25 years old to get it going again.

With Tripods blasting everything in sight with heat-rays, Ray and his children steal the re-energised car, now the only one in the neighbourhood that is working, with the intention of making for Boston. They stay overnight at Mary-Anne and Tim’s house in Bayonne, NJ. During the night a jumbo jet is shot down and crashes nearby. After an encounter with a TV crew they continue on to Boston, but Robbie is increasingly anxious to join soldiers who are fighting the invaders.

Near Athens, NY, they are attacked by a mob which seizes the car. They press on on foot. Everywhere posters of missing people have been put up – recalling New York in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In a dramatic sequence a train burning from end to end hurtles through (how it is still going isn’t clear). An uneasy crowd is waiting to board a Hudson River ferry. Rachel notices birds fleeing and a glow on the horizon. It is clear the tripods are close at hand. Ray, Rachel and Robbie board the ferry just as Tripods appear over horizon.

Cars are tipped off the ferry to make way for more people – reminiscent of the helicopters that were dropped overboard from aircraft carriers during the final frantic US retreat from Saigon in 1975. Thus the scene references two occasions when the most powerful nation in the world was reduced to impotence.

The Hudson Ferry scene echoes the scene in original when HMS Thunder Child destroys two Martian tripods and permits a ferry to get away, but in this version help does not come. The ferry is attacked by a submerged Tripod, which begins scooping people out of the water. However Ray, Rachel and Robbie swim to safety. They witness Tripods pursuing crowds of panicked humans, blasting them with heat-rays.

In Massachusetts, the Marines are trying to keep the Tripods at bay long enough to permit refugees to get away. At this point Robbie runs off to join the battle. But the Marines have no more luck than their 1953 counterparts and Robbie is believed to have been killed. A man named Ogilvy (Robbins) beckons to Ray and Rachel and they take shelter in his cellar. The man is a conflation of Ogilvy, the curate and the artilleryman from the original novel. The Tripods are broadcasting Red Weed, fertilized with human blood. Ogilvy flips and Ray has to kill him, as in the novel.

Ray and Rachel leave but are threatened by a Tripod which scoops up Rachel and puts her in a basket with some other humans. Ray finds some hand grenades abandoned in the heat of battle and hurls one at the Tripod, without effect. Ray is then scooped up himself. An arm periodically grabs humans and transfers them to the interior of the machine for processing. Ray is grabbed but the others pull him back – not before he leaves behind a couple of hand grenades, which detonate, destroying the Tripod and freeing the captives.

Ray and Rachel reach Boston where the red weed is apparently dying. The Tripods are also behaving erratically. Birds are circling near the hoods of one the machines, suggesting its shields are no longer operating. Ray urges a group of Marines to fire on the machine. They do so, taking it down. In another reference to 1953 a hatch opens and an alien hand reaches out. Instead of Forrester, it is greeted by gun-toting Marines, but it dies almost immediately.

In an ending that echoes the book, Ray finds Robbie and his ex-wife alive and well at the home of his former in-laws.

The defeat of the invaders is given as a more or less verbatim reading by Freeman Morgan the original novel, against a backdrop of the devastated Boston, but without the strongly religious undertones of the 1953 movie.

The DVD release references many chapter titles from the original novel.

The movie was actually one of three released in 2005 based on The War of the Worlds; the other two were both made for DVD. One of these, by Pendragon Pictures, was set in the UK at the time envisaged in the novel.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Brenham Pallasite

Pallasites account for around 1% of meteorites that reach Earth and are comprised of of olivine crystals in a nickel-iron matrix. They are believed to originate from the boundary between the iron core and rocky mantle of large asteroids that were disrupted by collision early in the history of the Solar System. Cut and polished slices are among the most attractive of all meteoric material. The Brenham meteorite in Kansas was discovered in 1882 having fallen in prehistoric times. It is one of the largest of all known pallasite falls and material massing several tons has been recovered.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Tempelhof Airport, Berlin

Opened in 1923, Tempelhof is one of the world's oldest airports still in operation and one of three airports in Berlin. It was completely reconstructed by the Nazis between 1936 and 1941 and at the time was one of the largest manmade structures on Earth. After the war the airport played a major role in the Berlin Airlift and the USAF operated from it throughout the Cold War, but its use declined thereafter. Sadly this historic airport's days are numbered and it is scheduled to close at the end of this month, the plan being that nearby Schonefeldt will be expanded and will eventually bcome Berlin's sole airport.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Monday, 13 October 2008

Berliner Fernsehturm

Located near Alexanderplatz in what was then East Berlin and constructed between 1965 and 1969, the Berliner Fernsehturm (TV Tower) is easily visible across the whole of Berlin, as its instigator, Walter Ulbricht presumably intended. Ironically, the design was based on a similar structure in Stuttgart, in the capitalist west!

The tower is featured in English artist Tacita Dean's 2001 work entitled 'Fernsehturm' and in 2006 the sphere was decorated as a football to mark Germany's hosting of the World Cup, a tournament that the Germans uncharacteristically failed to win.

The tower is shown framed between two stairwells of the now-demolished Palast der Republik, another icon of the former Communist regime.

© Christopher Seddon 2008