Author Archive

New Dead Sea Scrolls Cave Found

February 9, 2017 with No Comments and Posted in Ancient by

Death Camps in America? Lessons from Dachau

February 2, 2017 with No Comments and Posted in World War II by

See incredible footage from when the Americans liberated the Dachau Concentration camp, and consider whether death camps are in the future of the United States?

Gaspard de Coligny – the Huguenot Admiral

January 26, 2017 with No Comments and Posted in Reformation, Weekly Video by

Gaspard de Coligny was an admiral in 16th century Catholic France. He converted to Protestantism and became a leader of the Reformation in France. But on St. Bartholomew’s Day in 1572 he fell, a martyr.

What Happened at the Battle of Concord?

December 9, 2016 with 1 Comment and Posted in War for Independence, Weekly Video by

Join Discerning History for a brief overview of the Battle of Concord, the first American victory and one of the battles that begun the Revolutionary War.

Smuggling a Rare Artifact Out of an Israeli Prison

December 8, 2016 with No Comments and Posted in Ancient by

We’re pleased to welcome Ashley Cowie. a Scottish historian, author and filmmaker, for this guest post about one of his experiences – The Editor

Artefact recovered from Megiddo Church, the oldest place of Christian worship in the world

Artefact recovered from Megiddo Church, the oldest place of Christian worship in the world

This unremarkable lump of broken pottery is a 1700 hundred year old religious artefact, last touched by a follower of a mystical and rebellious cult that worshiped Jesus Christ. This is the story of how I had a human mule smuggle it out of an Israeli maximum security prison.

In August 2012 I was filming a documentary in northern Israel at Megiddo. Renowned for its historical, geographical, and theological importance, during the Bronze Age it was an important Canaanite city-state and by the Iron Age it was a royal city in the Kingdom of Israel. Excavations have unearthed over 26 layers of ruins and the primary reason Megiddo was so important was it’s strategic location at the head of a pass through the Camel Ridge, overlooking the Jezreel Valley from the west. Tel Migiddo rises from the fields like a sentinel. He who controlled the hill of Tel Megiddo was the one who collected the tax on spices and other valuable imports coming into Israel from the north.

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Tel Megiddo is an important trading station guarding the Jezreel Valley

In Greek, Tel Megiddo means Armageddon and this ancient landscape is central in biblical prophesy. Some Evangelical Christians still believe this to be the site of the final battle between Jesus Christ and Satan at the End of Days, as outlined in the Book of Revelation.

After I filmed an interview with archaeologist Norma Franklin we headed to our second location at the base of Tel Megiddo to film the next scene. Megiddo church is a unique archaeological site which includes the foundations of the oldest Christian church ever discovered, dating to the 3rd century AD, a time when Christians were still persecuted by the Roman Empire. This church was once situated in the ancient city of Legio but is now inside the precinct of Megiddo maximum security prison.

Before being permitted to enter the prison my entire film crew, fixers and all of our equipment and jeeps under-went strict search procedures. After passing a barrage of guard dogs and lines of guards boasting a phenomenal range of American built semi-automatic guns, all day we rubbed shoulders with some of the world’s most feared international terrorists. We were absolutely not allowed to see the prisoners as their identities must be kept secret.

The foundations of Megiddo church within the precinct of Megiddo maximum security prison

We often struggled with the irony that the oldest Christian church in the world is located within the grounds of a maximum security prison. We were there to film a very well preserved mosaic which features geometrical figures and images of fish, an early Christian symbol for Jesus Christ. I was going to count the numbers of tiles used to compose the fish symbol to interpret the numbers in relation to the numerical systems in relevant Biblical passages. However, the mosaic was not he only feature I desperately wanted in my documentary. I wanted the altar.

Think about all the hundreds of millions of people who pay homage to Christian altars every year? For me to have touched and interacted with the oldest one in the world, is something I really wanted to do and get on film. That kind of thing only happens once in a life time. And whether you are a believer or an Atheist, such moments are important life events which you can brag about at dinner parties.

We filmed my interview with the leading site archaeologist and after he showed me the architectural ruins I asked him to take me to the altar. He quickly replied “Ah, yes, the altar. Don’t you know? We recently covered it as part of routine maintenance”.We were utterly astounded. The producers face palmed and the budget guy nearly fainted. We had of course clearly built filming the altar into the permission agreement but the archaeologist maintained a steely cold nothingness on his face. It might have got awkward for him, but when you have 10 armed snipers in gun towers you command a degree of authority. There is only so much of a stink one can create in such precarious situations.

Basically, the Israeli prison authorities had a change of heart about letting me publicize the altar. Feeling dejected and sore we packed up our gear and left the prison grounds.

Megiddo Church altar covered in sand bags before our arrival

Earlier in the day while we were picking through he dig site this fragment of pale pottery peaking above the dark top soil caught my eye. I picked it up innocently with the honest intention of asking the archaeologists exactly what it was. We begin filming at that moment so it popped into Kinga Phillips (Field Producers) bag and forgot all about it.

When we left the prison several hours later we were all searched again, as these objects can hold substantial value on the black market. But the Kinga Phillips, being female, sailed through the security check, with the artifact stashed in her bag. After an hour or two in the crew bus she found it in her bag and I immediately confessed. Expectedly, Kinga she freaked out. She had basically been a mule and smuggled an ancient artifact out of a maximum security prison. Were we about to drive all the way back and go through the security drama – to return a piece of pottery? Ten people had flown eight thousand miles across the world to be robbed, we weren’t going back to return a piece of clay. We soon rationalized that this was a case of failing to return something, rather than intentionally stealing it. The artifact is safe in my private collection of very rare old things, for now. But I imagine I will get a ‘call’ from Mossad pretty soon, and I will no-doubt return it.

The artifact is part of an urn handle measuring 4 inches (10.16 cms) long by 2 inches (5.08 cms) thick. Its outer face features a series of 10 horizontal marks. I figured out that these were executed to either smooth off a rough edge or to increase grip. In a social context this artifact, being discovered at a church, might have belonged to the vessel which was used to deliver water to the font, to become holy.

It often mesmerizes me to think that the last person to have touched this clay artifact before me, risked their life belonging to a highly mystical, rebellious religious sect, who worshiped a little known of character called Jesus Christ, who had died two centuries years earlier. Little did the person who discarded this fragment know that their children’s struggle would shape their fringe cult into what would become the most dominant, controversial, resilient and lasting religion the world has ever witnessed. Drop me a line if you would like further information on this artifact or any aspect of the Tel Megiddo dig.

Megiddo Church mosaic with an early representation of Christ, previously the astrological symbol for piscis

Ashley Cowie is a Scottish historian, author and documentary filmmaker. He explores the world filming, writing and blogging about lost cultures and kingdoms, ancient crafts and arts, the origins of legends and myths, architecture, symbols, artefacts and treasures.

The Ancient Lost City of Columbia

November 15, 2016 with No Comments and Posted in Ancient by

Top 10 Best Revolutionary War Battlefields

November 11, 2016 with 1 Comment and Posted in War for Independence by

Visiting a battlefield can give you a far richer experience than just reading what happened there. It gives a greater depth to the story, and you can strive to visualize what the hills, fields and woods looked like when covered with armed men. Over the years, the Discerning History team has had the opportunity to visit many of battlefields from the American War for Independence. Here’s our picks for the best Revolutionary War battlefields to visit. We have chosen them based on the beauty of the location, how much they enhance your understanding of the battle, how well the landscape has been preserved and how important the original event was.


The Chew House. Source.

The Chew House. Source.

10. Germantown

After the British army under William Howe captured Philadelphia in 1777, George Washington mounted an attack on a British outpost at Germantown. After hours of fierce fighting, his army eventually retreated from the field. Although there is no park or museum commemorating the battle, several buildings from the time still stand. Most interesting is the Chew House, a strong stone building in which a group of regulars took shelter and beat back attacks from the Continental forces for several hours.


Guilford Courthouse National Park

Guilford Courthouse National Park

9. Gilford Court House

In the Battle of Gilford Court House, under 2,000 British solders under Lord Cornwallis defeated an American army under Nathanael Greene over twice their size. The British quickly pushed through three Americans lines, and won the battle in only ninety minutes. But they suffered very heavy casualties along the way, with about 25% killed, wounded or captured. The wooded battlefield is preserved today by the National Park Service. There is a road which you can drive or walk to take a tour of the site. You will find commemorative monuments and markers explaining the story of the battle.


Monument on Princeton Battlefield. Source.

8. Princeton

Washington’s surprise victory at Trenton is one of the classic stories of the American Revolution, but the battle of Princeton is less well known. Just days later, the Continentals attacked the British garrison at Princeton. The battle was hard fought, at one point the patriot militia began to falter, and Washington himself rallied them. But at length the British collapsed, and the day was won. The battlefield is better preserved than many from this war. It is commemorated by several monuments, and a state park contains some important sites including the Clarke House, which was standing at the time of the battle. Also of interest is Nassau Hall at Princeton University, at which Alexander Hamilton fired American cannon to drive out some British who had taken refuge inside.


The Stockade Fort. Source.

The Stockade Fort. Source.

7. Fort Ninety Six

The small village of Ninety Six was an important Loyalist stronghold in South Carolina. In 1780 the British built a palisade and several redoubts to defend the place. The next year it was besieged by the American army under Nathanael Greene. For nearly a month he tried to capture it from the smaller force of loyalists. The Patriots successfully stormed one redoubt and fought fiercely for the large Star Redoubt, but they were eventually driven off by hand to hand fighting. Greene quickly retreated, as a relieving British force was close at hand. Today the National Park Services maintains the old site of the town of Ninety Six, as well as the earthworks and a reconstructed stockade.


Cowpens Battlefield

Cowpens Battlefield

6. Cowpens

Daniel Morgan’s stunning victory at Cowpens, South Carolina, was a critical battle for the American cause. Morgan handled his mix of militia and Continentals ably in what was arguably the war’s greatest tactics. When they fell back, the British were convinced that the battle was won, leaving them unprepared for a double envelopment from the Patriots. More than a thousand British were casualties, compared with about 150 Americans. Today the battlefield is preserved by the National Park Service. Walk the battlefield trail to see the positions of the troops, and get a sense of the scale of the fighting.


Forested Slopes of King’s Mountain

5. King’s Mountain

King’s Mountain, in north-central South Carolina, was a crucial victory for the Americans in the southern theater. The loyalists under Patrick Ferguson were defeated by a force of patriots, many of them “over mountain men” who came from the settlements on the other side of the Applacian Mountains. It is easy to get a sense of the fighting today, as you walk around the top of the mountain where the loyalists made their stand, and imagine the patriots charging up the steep sides, studded with rocks and trees.


Fort Ticonderoga-DSC01063

Fort Ticonderoga

4. Fort Ticonderoga

Fort Ticonderoga is the best and most important fort surviving from the American Revolution. It was built by the French during the French and Indian War, and saw two battles during that war. Its dramatic capture by Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys was one of the patriots’ early successes. The fort later fell into British hands, and they defended it against an American attack in 1777. Ticonderoga was restored in 1909. Today it is an excellent site to visit, and costumed guides do cannon firing demonstrations.


North Bridge

The North Bridge at Concord

3. Lexington and Concord

It was the “Shot Heard Round the World” on the green in Lexington, Massachusetts that began the American Revolution. The victory at Concord later that day was pivotal to the American cause, as it showed that the colonial militia could defeat the regulars. Lexington is a great place to visit today, and while walking around across the green and through the period houses and taverns around it you can really get a sense of how the fighting progressed. The landscape along “Battle Road,” from Lexington to Concord, looks much like it did in 1775. Also interesting is the reconstructed North Bridge at Concord. Walk down from the Visitor’s Center to retrace the steps of the Patriots who gave the first check to the British forces.


A Redoubt on Yorktown Battlefield

A Redoubt on Yorktown Battlefield

2. Yorktown

The capture of the British army under Lord Cornwallis at the siege of Yorktown, Virginia, was the crowning victory of the Revolution. While the war went on for several more years, the fighting in America was effectively won. It is also one of the most interesting battlefields to visit. Many of the fortifications that were built during the siege have been reconstructed, and they have palisades and cannon to boot. Make sure to see Redoubts No. 9 and 10, which were stormed by the American and French troops near the end of the siege. You can also go into the village, where there is a battle monument and several historical homes run by the National Park Service.


A Cannon Overlooking Saratoga Battlefield

A Cannon Overlooking Saratoga Battlefield

1. Saratoga

Although Saratoga, in upstate New York, is one of the more remote of the battlefields of the American Revolution, it is unarguably one of the most picturesque. Standing on the bluffs next to cannons marking the artillery positions, you can look across the beautiful fields and woods down to the Hudson River. Victory in the Saratoga campaign was crucial to the American cause, as Horatio Gates’s capture of John Burgyone’s British army helped convince France to enter the war on the American side. Although virtually none of the earthworks have survived, colored stakes mark the positions of the armies. Of special note are the many artillery positions, the Neilson House which Benedict Arnold used as his headquarters, and the site redoubts which the Americans attacked during one of the battles.


Old South Church in Boston

Old South Church in Boston

Bonus: Downtown Boston

Boston, Massachusetts was arguably the most important city in America for the revolutionary cause. It was one of the main places that stood up against the authority of the British Parliament. The town itself was besieged by the Patriot forces in 1775-1776, in the longest siege ever to take place in the United States. Although the terrain has changed considerably and the sites of the battles around the town have fallen to development, you can still see many historic locations. These include monuments commemorating the battles of Bunker Hill and Dorchester Heights, the Old State House, in front of which is the site of the Boston Massacre out in front, the Old South Meeting House where the Boston Tea Party was planned, the Old North Church, Paul Revere’s House, and many more.


If you liked this post, you may also enjoy our Top 10 Best Civil War Battlefields. What Revolutionary War sites have you visited? Which was your favorite? Comment below and let us know!

President Grant’s Illegal Indian War

October 31, 2016 with No Comments and Posted in Wild West by

John Knox: The Father of Presbyterianism

October 27, 2016 with No Comments and Posted in Reformation, Weekly Video by

Join us at the Reformation Wall for a brief sketch of the life of John Knox, a Scottish Reformer.

The Mysterious Submarine on the Coast of Panama

October 24, 2016 with No Comments and Posted in American Other, Videos by

Was it a War Crime to Bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

October 20, 2016 with 3 Comments and Posted in World War II by

The Bombing of Nagasaki

The Bombing of Nagasaki

When the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, it set off a fierce debate. At least a hundred thousand civilians were killed and the cities had been leveled to the ground. A new era had begun where one bomb could destroy vast numbers of civilians. Many questions were raised, which are still debated to this day. Was it right to intentionally make war on civilians? Were the bombings justified because of thousands of American soldiers who would have likely been killed in the alternative – an invasion of Japan? Thousands of pages have been written on these issues, but we will add a few lines of our thoughts.

Historical Context

When considering the morality of dropping the atomic bombs, we need to consider the historical context in which this took place. These were not isolated acts. In fact, the Allies had been targeting civilians for years. Strategic bombing targeted not just factories and infrastructure necessary for the enemy’s war effort, but intentionally used weapons to try to demoralized the enemy public. Many hundreds of thousands of people were killed in these raids. Incendiary firebombs were dropped on Japan to intentionally light the wooden buildings on fire. The people suffered untold suffering as their cities burned, the fire raging hot enough to melt the asphalt in the streets. 75,000 – 200,000 people were killed in the firebombing of Tokyo, more than either atomic bomb. If we condemn the use of the atomic bomb, we must also condemn thousands of other bombings of civilians and the entire strategy of the Allied air force.

When the war began, the Allies did not plan to bomb civilians. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appealed to the combatants to “under no circumstances undertake bombardment from the air of civilian populations in unfortified cities,”i and at first all sides agreed. This commitment soon fell apart. Both sides committed a series of escalating reprisals. Eventually all sides decided to intentionally target the civilian population, to try to break their will to fight. A British staff paper said,

The ultimate aim of an attack on a town area is to break the morale of the population which occupies it. To ensure this, we must achieve two things: first, we must make the town physically uninhabitable and, secondly, we must make the people conscious of constant personal danger.ii

When the United States entered the war they, like the other powers had when the war began, planned to use only precision bombing. They wished to only hit military targets, and avoid damage to the civilians as much as possible. Although the military would continue to insist that that is what they were doing, that was not, in fact, the case. German anti-aircraft fire was very damaging, and it hindered Allied plans. Some bombing runs were conducted at night, which made attempts to hit the target guesswork at best, given the rudimentary navigation equipment. Even if conducted during the day, few bombs hit their target. One survey found that only 20% of bombs came within 1000 yards of their target. The reality was that if a “precision bombing” was ordered on a target anywhere near civilians, they had about the same chance of hitting the civilians as of hitting the target.

Charred Bodies from the Firebombing of Tokyo

Charred Bodies from the Firebombing of Tokyo


There were no international laws which clearly prohibited the aerial bombardment of civilians. The Hague Conventions took place in 1899 and 1907 – before aerial attacks were something to even consider. The Hague Rules of Air Warfare were written in 1927, but nations never agreed to abide by them. When the war was over, and the Axis leaders were being tried for war crimes in the Tokyo and Nuremburg Trials, they were not prosecuted for bombing civilians. The Allies could not do that without appearing as hypocrites before the world.

Leo Szilard was one of the scientists involved in creating the atom bomb at the Manhattan project, but he argued against its use against civilians:

Suppose Germany had developed two bombs before we had any bombs. And suppose Germany had dropped one bomb, say, on Rochester and the other on Buffalo, and then having run out of bombs she would have lost the war. Can anyone doubt that we would then have defined the dropping of atomic bombs on cities as a war crime, and that we would have sentenced the Germans who were guilty of this crime to death at Nuremberg and hanged them?iii

Without a doubt, if by some miracle the Japanese had won the war after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Americans would have been charged and convicted with war crimes.

What About the Bible?

A major issue with the Allies decisions were that they were backed up by pragmatic reasoning. They weren’t making them off of a consistent moral standard, they were just trying to achieve victory in the way they saw as the easiest, only constrained by what they felt their conscience said was right and wrong. Thus wiping Hiroshima and Nagasaki off the map could be justified by arguing that if they had instead landed on Japan, more Americans, and also Japanese, would have been killed. However, no one knows the future. Pragmatism ultimately does not work. It was pragmatic reasoning that led the British to try to appease Nazi Germany in the 1930s instead of standing up to their evil. The proper course is to do what is right, even if it doesn’t seem the best way to our reasoning. As the old saying goes, duty is ours, results are God’s.

Using the Bible as our moral standard, was dropping the atomic bomb right or wrong? In Deuteronomy 20, God gave Israel strict instructions on how to conduct warfare. He says:

When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it. And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee. And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it: and when the Lord thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword: but the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the Lord thy God hath given thee.iv

Israel was instructed offer cities the option of surrender, and if they refused, only the men were to be killed. The women and children were to be spared. But there was little or no warning given to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the bombs indiscriminately killed men, women and children alike. Deuteronomy 20 goes on further:

When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by forcing an axe against them: for thou mayest eat of them, and thou shalt not cut them down (for the tree of the field is man’s life) to employ them in the siege:v

The Israelites were not to cut down trees to so as not to destroy the productivity of the land. Atomic bombs dropped on cities do the exact opposite – they destroy everything in their path fruit trees, women and children. Under Biblical law, there is no question that they would be forbidden.

Hiroshima Turned into a Wasteland by the Bomb

Hiroshima Turned into a Wasteland by the Bomb


Further Study

Logical Insanity by Dan Carlin
Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog


i. Appeal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Aerial Bombardment of Civilian Populations, September 1, 1939
ii. Despatch on war operations, 23rd February, 1942, to 8th May, 1945 by Arthur Travers Harris (1995) Cass Series: Studies in Air Power. 3. Psychology Press. p. 7.
iii. “President Truman Did Not Understand,” U.S. News & World Report, August 15, 1960, pages 68-71.
iv. Deuteronomy 20:10-14
v. Deuteronomy 20:19

The Rise and Fall of the Army Surplus Store

October 18, 2016 with No Comments and Posted in American Other by