Suspense

Expedition Unknown – The Great Bell of Dhammazedi – S01E12

imageFor this rather unusual investigation, Josh is off to Myanmar to search for a massive gold bell that was stolen and then lost. The bell was cast in 1484 out of gold and silver and is believed to weigh 300 tons and be 18ft tall. No small feat that a Portuguese warlord named Filipe de Brito e Nicote stole the bell, rolled it down the hill and loaded it onto a small ship.

However, the joke was on him as both his ship and his cargo all sank. The bell has been lost ever since. Oddly, the bell has been lost in a river, so why is it so hard to find? The river is insanely muddy where the visibility is zero. Also, the river is quite a bit deeper than many charts say. Add to this the current and the fact the bell could be completely covered in mud or debris and basically the divers have no idea what they may have their hands on. They could literally be touching the bell and not even know it.

It almost seems like a lost cause, but there are plenty of groups out there searching for it and the government is working to support the effort. And enter Josh to offer his hand and shed some light on the story.

As usual, Josh starts off his investigation and his visit with a trip to the market. And it is once again filled all sorts of strange, unusual and exotic goods. Josh even tries his hand, or rather head, at carrying a basket of goods around. His balance needs a bit of work, but many locals try to help him get the hang of it.

Josh starts off in Bagan where he heads to Mount Popa, one of the two thousand temples that pepper the landscape. This is a temple dedicated to the Nat spirits. These spirits are believed to watch over and protect the bell. It is believe the Nat spirits are angry over the stolen bell and prevent people from finding it. The goal is to ask the spirits for permission to search for the bell. It’s not quite what you would expect and there is plenty of drinking and smoking to appease the spirits. The dancers believe they channel the energy of the Nats wherein the can pass along good will and blessings. It’s an odd ritual to be sure, but it’s part of the culture and respected by the local people.

After the blessing it’s off to Yangon, which was formerly known as Rangoon. Bells pepper the city and are used throughout for prayers. Josh heads to the Shwedagon Pagoda, which is quite literally covered in gold. This is where the bell was stolen from and ironically, there is a scale replica of the bell that was stolen and lost in the river. However, it was recovered and has been returned. So if it can happen once, it can happen again.

Before going to join the hunt for the bell, an offering and blessing needs to be made. This is taken quite seriously as a Buddhist monk comes down to the docks to bless the boat, the crew and the mission. I have to admit, the research vessel leaves a little something to be desired. It looks like a rotting boat that will most likely come apart before they make it 100 yards away from shore. But it stays afloat and they head to the center of the intersection where the three rivers meet where they believe the bell went overboard.

But if you think the boat is a bit makeshift, wait until you see the diving gear. It’s literally an old gas mask with some handmade straps fed by a tube that’s hooked to an air compressor. To say it’s dangerous is a staggering understatement. And the thing is, the water is like mud and they can’t see a thing down there. All they can do is feel around and see what sort of debris they can discover.

The locals have been putting in the effort to find the bell, but several lives have already been lost. This is no easy task under the best of conditions and it’s pretty obvious, these are not the best of conditions.

There is another group doing their own investigation further upstream, so Josh takes the local train and heads up to join him. Damien Lay is the leader and his team has a bit more technology on their side. However, their boat isn’t a whole lot better and the technology consists of some better scuba gear and sonar. That’s about it. In no way do they have millions of dollars worth of equipment like submersibles and robotic arms.

Damien heads into the incredibly murky water and feels something large and dome shaped. But since he can’t see anything, he really has no idea what he’s found. Josh is encouraged to give it a go and since he will be one of only a handful of Westerners to ever look for the bell, it’s a pretty big honor.

It’s a few tense moments as Josh heads into the water and the current pulls him away from the boat. They also lose radio contact and have to drag him back. He does indeed look a little out of sorts, but manages to pull up a small piece of metal. It’s newer than the wreckage they are looking for, but it just goes to show the type of junk they have to contend with. Even the sonar has a hard time picking up objects so are they in the right place and if it is, how exactly will they know? And if they do find it, how exactly will they get it out?

It’s a pretty wild endeavor to be sure. You would think such a massive bell would be easy to locate in such a shallow river. But everything seems to be against them. The river is deeper than people believe. The current could easily be shifting the bottom of the river not only changing the contour, but completely covering the bell with mud. And the water is so muddy and dark that even if they were in the right spot how would they know?

Hopefully in time technology will help locate the bell and the search teams can put it back in the pagoda where it belongs.

Great Bell of Dhammazedi

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Expedition Unknown – Samurai Sword of Power – S01E11

imageThis is an intriguing episode as Josh heads off to Japan in search of a mystical Japanese sword called the Hanjo Masamune. The sword was forged in the 13th century and is said to not only be the finest blade ever made, but had the power to never kill an innocent man. It is said that whoever wielded the Hanjo Masamune would be the ruler of Japan. And that’s exactly what happened. Through the years the sword was handed down through generations. While the story associated with the sword seems the stuff on anime cartoons, the sword itself is in fact real. It existed and was tracked all the way until the end of World War II. At that time, as Japan surrendered, all small armaments, including swords, were to be handed over to the government. The sword was handed over to the police and then promptly disappeared. The location of the sword remains a mystery. Some believe it may have come to the US. Others believe is may be in a temple. Or it could have ended up on the black market and is in the hands of a private collector.

To start his investigation and gather information Josh talks with Tsunenari Tokugawa who is the 18th generation of the family that once ruled over Japan, with the help of the Hanjo Masamune sword. Mr. Tokugawa shows Josh his family mausoleum  that contains the remains of many Shogun generals. These would have been men that most likely wielded the actual sword. Mr. Tokugawa believes the sword is most likely in the hands of an individual collector.

To learn more about selling swords to private collectors, Josh meets with a man who sells swords in this rather murky market. The dealer has some information about the sword including what it may really look like and the blade pattern. If the real Hanjo were to come on the market, it’s blade markings would have to match. Interestingly, swords sold through regular channels come with certificates that prove who the sword was made by and when.

And then to learn about the sword making process, Josh visits Tsunahiro Yamamura who’s a 24th generation of Masamune. That is quite amazing and actually puts his family as slightly older than that of the Tokugawa family.

Mr. Yamamura is a master sword maker and shows Josh that the swords are hand made over several weeks. The steel is heated dozens of times to create strength and purity. Josh is given the honor to actually pound the metal for a new sword being made. Since I’ve always been fascinated with swords and knives, this was quite exciting to watch.

But to really know about the sword, Josh needs to wield one. And with the help of an expert, Josh goes out back and is shown how to make strikes with the blade. He does surprisingly well and it shows just how sharp the blade is. Josh makes incredibly clean cuts through the bamboo mat. Does he a touch of the Samurai DNA?

The next stop is a series of tunnels where the sword may have been kept after being turned in. When the sword was turned over, it may have been kept or perhaps smuggled into these tunnels. Josh meets with Michael Gakuran who has been given permission to explore this area in search of the sword. He and Josh spend some time down there, but don’t actually discover the sword. But as Michael explains, there are miles of tunnels and they’ve barely started searching.

As Josh continues to search for answers, he meets with Tetsuro Shimaguchi who shows him what it’s like to train like a Samurai warrior. He gives Josh just a brief glimpse of the moves, posture, stance and balance it takes. Then, he tries what he’s learned with one of the students. Needless to say, Josh doesn’t stand a chance. But it does show the intense discipline and training it requires to handle this sort of weapon.

It is believed that the sword may have found it’s way into a shrine and since there is one close by, Josh heads to the top of the mountain to have a look around. We really don’t expect Josh to find the sword and this is more of an excuse for him to ride a motorcycle and see the spectacular landscape. Can’t really fault him for that, the scenery is gorgeous.

But there is a monk at the top of the mountain and while the shrine does contain treasures, it’s not the sword and the monk informs Josh he is surrounded by treasures in the form of the trees and mountains. He’s quite right.

Finally, Josh meets with a sword collector who’s family has been in the business since 1874. While we’re certainly not expecting this man to hand over the ancient lost sword, he certainly has something worth looking at. While not the original Honjo Masamune, it is a sword from the same maker. Josh is holding a Masamune sword that is around 600 years old – and it is stunning. This is all hand made from a single piece of steel. The sharpness and quality are amazing. Josh is holding a wonderful piece of Japanese history. And the Honjo is supposed to be even better. Hard to imagine.

We never really expected Josh to find the sword, but what a fantastic journey. Japan has such history and always seems to be cloaked in mystery. Even with this small glimpse into the origins of this sword, it’s a fun journey. The samurai way of life and the code they lived by is something to behold and if there is a true tangible item that encompasses that way of life and represents such power and honor, I truly hope one day it does reveal itself.

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Expedition Unknown – Secrets of the Nazca – S01E10

imageJosh heads out to Lima, Peru to investigate the mystery of the Nazca lines. These are the massive drawings that cover the landscape. In many cases the shape is made from a single line that doesn’t cross over itself. Some of the more famous ones depict a hummingbird, a spider and a heron. All totaled there are nearly 100 shapes that represent animals, figures and geometric shapes. These figures are several hundred feet in length, the heron being over 900 feet. How did a culture make the shapes with such precision and what were they made for? Some believe they’re an astronomical calendar that align with the stars. Others believe they were ceremonial. And even some others believe they were left by or perhaps are guide markers for aliens.

To get acquainted with the area, Josh heads out for a fun filled ride through the desert. The fact there is a lot of sand and dunes means it’s a good place to take a dune buggy and have some fun. And there’s even a little time for some sand boarding down the dunes.

After getting a lay of the land, it’s time to figure out how the glyphs were made. Obviously they’re massive in scale, so could they have been done freehand? After a quick exercise of Josh trying to replicate one, all signs point to no. Something this large wasn’t just put together without some sort of plan. So does this point to the alien theory? Not quite. Josh meets up with a group of researches who have a more down to earth explanation.

The desert isn’t completely flat. There are in fact some rises throughout. Standing on this rise you can get a good view of the surrounding area. Using this, a surveyor would instruct his crew to lay out stakes to represent the major shape. Then using string, they would be able to fill in other parts of the drawing. It would then be a matter of connecting the dots and creating the shape. Josh decides to give it a go and together they make an extremely good replica of the hummingbird. Their shape is much smaller of course, but the theory is sound. It also rules out the alien theory.

And what do the symbols mean? Well, some have been tracked to align with celestial bodies. The hummingbird points to the position of the sun during the summer solstice. The beak of the heron points to the sun at the winter solstice. This would allow the Nazca to know when the winter and summer months were coming so they could plan their crops. This theory only represents a few of the figures.

Josh then heads to the Cahuachi Temple which is the only building left from the Nazca civilization. Out here, there is a very interesting burial ground where bodies have been preserved and even mummified. They were buried with food and offerings. This shows a society that had ritualized burials.

Additionally, Josh talks with some of the descendants of the Nazca who show him some of their ceremonies. Like other cultures, they used local plants to create a hallucinogenic drink that would allow them to communicate with the spirit world. This also shows an organized religious structure and also helps to support that the animals they drew were part of their religious icons.

Next, Josh hops in a plane so he can get a much wider view of the Nazca lines. He’s also off to see these new lines which have recently been discovered after a sandstorm brought them to the surface. It is believed the new lines are actually from the Paracas people and are in fact older than the Nazca lines.

The Paracas lived before the Nazca and were actually invaded by them. The Nazca took over the culture and absorbed a lot of their traditions, including making the lines. The Paracas also had a practice of elongating the head which they reserved for royalty. It’s a very strange practice to be sure and it’s not entirely understood as to why.

While most of the Nazca lines are best seen from above in a plane, some are better observed from the water. Even in this desert there is quite a bit of water and in fact fishing. Josh heads out to find one of the new symbols they call the Candelabra, but is more like a cactus of the area. It is believed this symbol would have been used to mark the location of water. The Nazca would have to learn the art of fishing and water management in order to survive out in the desert and many feel the symbols point to water sources.

To get more information on that, Josh heads out into the desert to discover what exists at the intersection of several of the prominent lines. On the way they discover a necropolis where human remains are literally lying in the sand. In fact, Josh is able to bring up a human skull that sits in the sand. A little further down they discover a pyramid that overlooks the symbols. It is believed this would have been a place of worship and it is also believed that many of the symbols outline the path of water sources.

Water sources in the lifeless desert?  Surely you jest. But taking up the challenge and a shovel, Josh starts to dig down. Oddly, there are plenty of roots, so clearly something used to grow here. And oddly, as he keep going, he begins to pull up wet sand. Yes indeed, there is water in the desert and the idea the Nazca mapped it out seems extremely likely. And to further explore the idea, Josh shows some aqueducts that have been built that channel and funnel the water so it can be used.

When all is said and done, it looks like the glyphs have multiple purposes and uses. They are indeed religious icons that symbolized the religious aspect of the Nazca. They also represent a way to determine a change in the season. And finally, they most likely point to sources of water that would have been essential to their survival out in the desert. And all of this without the help from aliens.

It’s a pretty impressive system and a fascinating culture.

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Expedition Unknown – Mayan Apocalypse – S01E09

imageFor this episode, Josh heads down Mexico way to try and undercover some truth about the Mayan Empire and why the civilization simply vanished. You remember the Mayans right? They had that wacky calendar that said we were all going to be obliterated and wiped off the face of the earth in 2012. Well, jokes on them. We’re all still here. The same can’t be said for the Mayan culture itself though. Looks like they were wrong about our demise and their own.

But new evidence has been brought to light which may answer some questions. At the height of the Mayan Empire there were over 4000 cities with a population of over 20 million people. They thrived and were masters of math, astronomy and the land. But then suddenly, they disappeared. Josh heads down to Cancun to get things started.

Before we go anywhere we must contend with a lost bag that has decided to take a side trip to Washington DC. Additionally, we must visit the exciting Dia de los Muertos festival. The people of Mexico embrace the idea of the afterlife and spirit world in quite a festive style. Not to be left out, Josh goes with some decorative face painting and blends in with the crowd. Good thing this didn’t turn into a Mardi Gras style event.

As Josh heads out to the ruins and makes his way into the thick jungles, climbs the pyramids and looks out into the thick undergrowth, there is something missing. Where is the water? What did the Mayans use for drinking and watering their crops? We know corn was a pivotal ingredient, but how did they grow it. Turns out the Mayan cities sit on top of thousands of water filled caverns called "cenote".

Josh is given the opportunity to head down into these caves which have been formed and eroded by rainfall. The clear water caverns are connected by thousand of miles worth of tunnels. It is also believed that these caverns were considered a place of supernatural power where demons and gods lived. This was the entrance to the Underworld itself. In order to keep the gods happy, the Mayans would perform sacrifices to show their devotion. This would include blood sacrifice as well as throwing offerings into the cenote. Strangely, this offering would many times be children. Is it really a good idea to throw people into your own water supply?

We can see evidence of their presence in the underworld by the pottery they left behind. This also means the water level would have been lower during that time.

Josh then heads to Chichen Itza, which has some of the best preserved Mayan structures. The city covers 1000 acres, has ball courts which seem pivotal to the Mayan people as well as sacrificial alters and temples. It is believed the city was built and designed to worship Chaac, the god of rain. The huge city sits on top of a network of cenote. Because of their skill with astronomy, it has been believed the cities were placed in line with the sun, moon and planets. But it is now believed water was equally, if not more important and dictated where the city would be placed.

One of the cenote, Holtun Cenote, has a small opening they can climb through so Josh and his guide head down. Turns out this small opening is actually a doorway to massive cavern. It also appears this cenote has some astrological significance as every May 23, the sun shines directly into the cavern and can illuminate the whole area. This would also line up with the pyramid itself which doesn’t appear to be any sort of coincidence.

As they venture down into the watery depths, they find quite a few items of pottery. But it’s the bones and skulls that really stir things up. Clearly people came down here on a regular basis. These items didn’t wash up here, but were placed by hand. They also discover a "shelf" that has human and animal remains lined up. This appears to be a sacrificial alter. Since people were obviously able to walk to these locations the water level would have been receding. This points to a severe and lasting drought for the Mayans. These sacrifices were an attempt to bring back the rain. Without the rain, the crops would wither and die and people would starve and die of thirst.

It appears the Mayans kept cutting into the forest to expand their empire and clear a places for crops. As they removed more and more of the trees, the rainfall dwindled. As the rain dwindled so did the people. The success and expanse of the Mayan people appear to have been it’s downfall. They were destroying the very thing they needed in order to survive. So as they build more and more, they ended up with less and less. It also seems that throwing bodies into the water and letting them rot didn’t do much good for the sanitation conditions.

As Josh says, perhaps we should look at this as a cautionary tale. We need to strike a balance. As we continue to use up our resources we will soon be at the point where we don’t have enough to sustain ourselves. And as always, this was a fascinating look at the people and culture of our neighbors.

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