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Past times

I n 1926 Wills issued Wonders of the Past. It was a time when the past had been propelled into the present with the recent discovery of Tutankhamen's wealth.

Certainly the glint of gold sharpens peoples focus considerably. If Carter had found a bunch of broken pottery and a bit of rotting wood things might well have been rather different.

It is only right and proper therefore the set starts with the huge monuments dotted about under the hot Egyptian sun. The smoking population would have seen black and white images of many of these but this was colour. Huge structures reduced to the size of a cigarette card might not quite be the thing but given the alternatives (not see them) it is a fair effort.

Actually the set starts, continues and ends with large structures, give or take the odd example. It is however pretty much the 50 cards I would have chosen for the set, if only in hindsight.

The Colossi of Memmon stand alone on the card. Originally guarding a temple but were obviously looking the other way when this was spirited away sometime in history. Hewn from solid rock the card informs us they were floated down the Nile. The right hand one was apparently shattered by an earthquake in 27 AD after which it emitted a strange noise at sunrise which ceased 200 years later when it was repaired.

Card 6 shows the Pharos of Alexandria and is remarkably restrained in its representation, a pretty determined looking tower block with a belfry type structure on the top of it. Estimated at between 400 and 600 feet high it could have been seen for up to 27 miles. Partially dismantled in the 9th century and earthquake completed the task in the 14th century.

a system which could only be described as complicated

This card represents something of an interloper as we are soon back with the Egyptian theme, this time looking at the Pyramids (the only wonder of the world left standing) The Great Pyramid of Cheops which the card calculates would be 481 feet high if it had its top. Some of the blocks of stone weigh 16 tons and it trots out the usual story of not being able to force a knife blade between them. Makes you wonder just how much damage has been done over the years by people trying such tricks.

It also says the whole lot was encased in white limestone. Now that really would have been something incredible to see. There is a suggestion now that these would have been covered in huge glyphs which would have been awe inspiring indeed.

Pyramids of Gizeh (spelling as card) next. This floats the old idea that building was done by conscription which has lost some of its credibility in recent years.

Recently these pyramids have been subject to a theory of alignment with the constellation of Orion. To manage this trick you have to either turn the constellation of Orion upside down or the pyramids through 180 degrees. NASA might get confused with metric and imperial measurements but the Egyptians weren't that stupid.

If these pyramids have suffered at the hands of fanciful theories so has the next card, The Sphinx. Even the reverse of the card feels it necessary to cut through the nonsense and just state the facts. About 4,800 years old, partly built and partly hewn from the rock, 75.5 feet high, 164 feet long. At the time the card was issued the sand had almost covered it but an open air temple resided between its paws.

This thing has been linked with civilisations even older than Egyptian (which naturally has to be those escaping from Atlantis) on the theory the base has significantly eroded in a manner which suggests water erosion.

Moving on we have a Maya 'Date Marker'. This lot were obsessed with the passage of time it would seem and must have spent a good deal of it thinking about how to calculate it. They came up with a system which could only be described as complicated. It was apparently the most accurate in the world until the Gregorian calendar turned up.

The next card represents something which fascinated me almost to the point of distraction when I was younger and cared more about these things. The stone heads at Easter island.

The card thankfully dismisses the idea they were erected by a hideous giant race. Going, instead, for the more promising idea the statues are only about 200 years old, but a religious feud caused many to be overthrown and finally the meaning of the things forgotten by the inhabitants (they numbered 250 when the card was produced, in 1989 estimate population 2095). One thing is for sure though the more we discover about this island the stranger it becomes.

It seems a bit rough to dismiss the statues as a couple of hundred years old a religious war breaks out and everyone forgets about it. About 100 of the 600 statues still stand, they are between 3 and 12 metres with one left at the production stage at the quarry measuring 21 metres. This truly is a mysterious place.

It is very difficult to follow that so I shift to card 21 which shows the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The reverse of the card explains the existence of this structure, who built it and where the remains can be found. All very interesting and all very unlikely as for some reason nobody alive during the period this incredible wonder existed thought of mentioning it in a form we can find today.

Card 22 is much more promising Angkor Vat (I am only spelling it like the card, for those that want to spell it Wat). If there is one card in this set which could easily now have a set of its own it is this one. Probably the largest religious building ever to have existed it has the longest running bass relief running around it.

We are not talking small, it is protected by a moat which runs for 5 km, the base of the structure being about 850m by 1000m, it is calculated to have taken more than 30 years to build. This seems rather speedy when you see the size of the thing.

The Great Wall of China has been credited as the only man made structure you can see from space. This is a claim made of a number of man-made structures and I suppose it depends exactly how high you are and what you are using to look down with as we can now read car number plates from space it all seems a bit hum-drum.

Here in the UK we make a bit of a fuss about Hadrian's Wall which extends for about 71 miles, in places is 20 foot high and 8 foot wide but in others no more than not much. The idea of this was to keep the Scots from interfering with the Romans (who by this stage were apparently only interested in interfering with one another).

So you have to wonder how much the Chinese wanted to avoid contact with the Tartars as the wall they built extended for about 1500 miles, was abot 20 foot thick at the base and about 12 foot high. Guard posts every couple of hundred feet made sure people stayed the right side.

From something rather utilitarian in design, a wall is a wall afterall to something which transcends its function. The Taj Mahal. This is something you have to be impressed by, it is a true wonder, built in the first half of the 17th century it is composed of white marble. I read somewhere there were plans to put one opposite of black marble. Probably best that did not happen as potentially nobody would have done another thing choosing instead just to stare at those two buildings.

If Angkor Wat made your eyes pop best you do not consider Boro Budur (two words on this card, one word now). This is basically a natural hill which was then covered with stone and elaborately carved. Abandoned pretty swiftly after it was completed. The reverse of the card says it was never completed. It was pretty much lost to the world after the 11th century (remember here in the UK Harold is getting one in the eye about this time) and was partially excavated during the first part of the 20th century (by Raffles?). It influenced the design of Angkor Wat.

That is the second time I have been a bit dismissive of UK efforts on the world wonders stage so lets get the balance right. Stonehenge is card 35. If there has ever been more nonsense ascribed to a bunch of stones I cannot think of them right now. When the card was written it stood in isolation on Salisbury Plain, things have changed a bit now every new age concept wants to claim a piece of this old age (I include the ludicrous Druids amongst this bunch who are upstarts on the timeline in comparison to this place)

It is a bit of tumble down structure now whose significance we don't really understand. The card does not mention but I will the following. The Romans came, saw, and tore a couple of uprights down. In Jan 1797 two uprights and a lintel fell as did an upright and a lintel fall in 1900.

In 1958 these stones were put back in place.

Although the set does not end there I am going to end this here, consider it an unfinished masterpiece of a previous millenium.