July 2016 in Review

This is an index and summary of the things I’ve talked about over the last month. Links for multi-post subjects go to the first post (even if it’s before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there.

Museums

Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom – exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Total: 1

Talks

“Howard Carter: An Alternative View of the Man Through His Art” Lee Young – talk at the July EEG Meeting.

Total: 1

June 2016 in Review

This is an index and summary of the things I’ve talked about over the last month. Links for multi-post subjects go to the first post (even if it’s before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there.

Books

Fiction

“The Burning Stone” Kate Elliott. Epic fantasy set in an analogue of medieval Europe, part of the Crown of Stars series. New.

Total: 1

Non-Fiction

“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke. Part of the Thames & Hudson Ancient Civilisations series.

Total: 1

Museums

Celts: Art and Identity – an exhibition at the British Museum about historical Celts and modern Celtic identity.

Total: 1

Radio

P v NP – In Our Time episode about P v NP problems.

Total: 1

Talks

“Seeking Senenmut: Statues, Status and Scandal” Campbell Price – talk at the June meeting of the Essex Egyptology Group.

Total: 1

“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke (Part 9)

The last part of this chapter of the Middle East book covers the end of the 2nd Millennium BCE, it first looks at the return of Assyria as a power in the region. Then it talks about Bronze Age Collapse which occurs in the 12th Century BCE and ushers in what is sometimes called a “dark age”. The big powers (Egypt, Assyria) wobble but many of the smaller states suffer a severe crisis. The power vacuum this leaves sets the stage for the “Age of Empires” as the next chapter of the book refers to it.

Orientation Dates:

  • 1600-1046 BCE: The Shang Dynasty of China (post).
  • 1550-1069 BCE: The New Kingdom in Egypt.
  • 1351–1334 BCE: Reign of Akhenaten in Egypt.
  • 1332–1323 BCE: Reign of Tutankhamun in Egypt.
  • 1279–1213 BCE: Reign of Ramesses II in Egypt.
  • 1186-1155 BCE: Reign of Ramesses III in Egypt.

Power Struggles: The Rise of Assyria

Assyria had been a notable power in the region around 1800 BCE, but by 1750 BCE it was practically a vassal to the Babylonians – although there is some limited evidence that there might’ve been a greater degree of autonomy than the term vassal would suggest. At some point in the 16th Century BCE Assyria becomes a vassal of the Mitanni – although the (later) Assyrian King List keeps on listing names of kings for this period there are no contemporary Assyrian royal inscriptions at all from this period. So the “kings” may well’ve been governors installed by the Mitanni in some sense. There’s also some textual evidence to suggest that the Assyrian kingdom wasn’t a cohesive whole during this time – it may’ve been fragmented into several vassal kingdoms of the Mitanni.

Assyrian royal inscriptions reappear in the archaeological record around 1420 BCE, and they start to appear in the diplomatic record again shortly afterwards. By the time Ashuruballit I takes the throne in c.1363 BCE Assyria regards itself as an independent state, capable of participating in diplomatic gift exchanges with Egypt (as recorded in the Amarna letters). 50 years later the Assyrian kings are once again styling themselves “Mighty King, King of Assyria”, reflecting Assyria’s return to the status of major power in the region.

Under Adad-nirari I (ruled c.1305-1274 BCE) the Assyrians conquered the Syrian region where the Mitanni kingdom had once been – not once, but twice. The Mitannian kingdom had given way to a new state called Hanigalbat, and Adad-nirari I’s first campaign against them was justified as retaliation for hostilities committed by the Hanigalbatean king Shattuara. Shattuara was captured and “encouraged” to become an Assyrian vassal, but his son requested help from the Hittites which prompted Adad-nirari I to invade once more, this time finishing the job and retaining control of the region. Adad-nirari I also successfully campaigned against the Kassite rulers of Babylon, pushing the border back into what had previously been Babylonian territory. But culturally speaking the Assyrians looked to Babylon – using Standard Babylonian in written texts (instead of the Assyrian dialect of Akkadian) and revering Babylonian gods. And Adad-nirari I also managed to get himself accepted as an equal of the Hittite king Hattusili III, with all their diplomatic correspondence addressing each other as “brother”. So by the end of his reign Assyria was once more the equal or superior of any of the major powers in the region.

Shalmaneser I succeeded his father as king of Assyria in c.1273 BCE and continued the military expansion of the Assyrian kingdom. As well as putting down another revolt in the Hanigalbat kingdom to the west, Shalmaneser I also campaigned to the north of Assyria. The peoples he fought there were the Urartians, which is the first time they are documented – in later centuries they were to become a powerful kingdom but at this point they were apparently not yet unified. Relationships with the Hittites cooled during Shalmaneser I’s reign – the Hittites attempted to encourage an economic embargo against the Assyrians. Shalmaneser I was also notable for beginning the practice of systematically deporting conquered peoples, using them as an important part of the workforce in the kingdom’s heartland.

Shalmaneser I was succeeded by his son Takulti-ninurta I, who may be the real person behind the biblical stories of Nimrod or the stories of the Greek king Nino or Ninus.* Takulti-ninurta I ruled for a long time, 36 years, and expanded the Assyrian territory further into Anatolia and Babylon. After he had conquered Babylon he install Assyrian governors to directly rule the city, and also uprooted several of the religious artifacts from that city and transported them (and some of the associated ritual practices) to Assur. This did not go down well with the Babylonians, nor with the Assyrians. Perhaps due to tensions with the elite in Assur Takulti-ninurta I founded a new capital across the river Tigris from Assur, making a big deal that it was founded on virgin soil. Much of what is known about his reign comes from an Epic that was composed to celebrate his victory over the Kassite rulers of Babylon (presumably commissioned by Takulti-ninurta I). It’s very much a justification of his moral superiority over the defeated foe. Takulti-ninurta I almost certainly died by assassination, and Assyria went into decline for about a century after his death in c.1208 BCE.

*Or so the book says, in a single sentence starting with “Some have viewed” and then promptly drops the info on the floor and fails to explain who views, why they view or indeed any points of similarity. Oh well. It let them use a 17th Century Dutch painting of Semiramis tho, who isn’t mentioned anywhere in the text in this section and later in the book is noted as having been married to someone else *rolls eyes*

The next important ruler of Assyria was Tiglath-pileser I, who ruled from c.1115-1077 BCE, who reorganised the military and set about re-expanding the Assyrian kingdom. He’s the first Assyrian king that we know to have recorded annals for his reign. They’re not dated, nor are lengths of the campaigns mentioned, but his military campaigns are listed in chronological order in these annals. I’m not sure how they know it’s chronological if there are no dates – perhaps internal evidence from the text? He campaigned in the same regions that his predecessors had done – against the people to the north (who at this point were the Mushki), into Anatolia amongst the Neo-Hittite kingdoms, against the peoples in modern day Syria (including Arameans living near the Euphrates), and against the Babylonians. He’s also known to modern archaeologists for gathering together a collection of documents we now call the Middle Assyrian Laws. These seem to’ve been his library copy of a selection of original texts written 300 or so years before his time, covering a wide variety of subjects including things like blasphemy, abortion, inheritance, maritime traffic. He was probably also assassinated, and once again the Assyrian kingdom went into decline for around a century.

The book now breaks from its chronological trot through the rise of the Assyrians to talk about the Sea Peoples, the fall of the Hittites and the ensuing Dark Age. The name “the Sea Peoples” comes from Egyptian texts, starting with sporadic mentions in the time of Ramesses II (reigned c.1279-1213 BCE) through to more frequent mentions in the time of Ramesses III (reigned c.1184-1153 BCE) who had to fight a series of battles against them (which he records on the walls of the temple at Medinet Habu). There are also references in texts from countries in the Middle East of destruction around this time period, and there is archaeological evidence of increased destruction taking place – archaeologists presume that both of these strands of evidence are referencing the same peoples as the Egyptian texts. So who were the Sea Peoples? The short answer is that we’re not entirely certain but there’s a reasonable amount of evidence to link specific named groups of Sea Peoples to people who had previously been living in the Aegean and Anatolian areas. There’s also archaeological evidence of abandonment of settlements in Mycenaea around this time. It’s not at all clear why these peoples were on the move – the reliefs at Medinet Habu depict not just soldiers but families, so it seems that this was migration rather than purely military expeditions. Famine or sudden climate change have been put forward as potential explanations for the migrations, but there’s no consensus. There’s also no consensus on how much of an effect the Sea People’s migrations had on the region – although it seems plausible that they did contribute to the destabilisation that occurred in this time period.

The fall of the Hittites is a part of that destabilisation. The deterioration of the state appears to’ve started during the reign of Tudhaliya IV (c.1237-1209 BCE), and the last of the Hittite kings was Suppiluliuma II (c.1207-1190 BCE). The causes are unclear – conflict with the Assyrians certainly played a part, and probably so did conflict with the Sea Peoples. One key military conflict during Suppliluliuma II’s reign was with people based on Cyprus, to protect grain shipments heading from modern Syria into the Hittite kingdom. The people on Cyprus at the time may or may not’ve been Sea Peoples who’d settled there. Ultimately the Hittites were unable to sufficiently protect their grain shipments, and that caused famine. There’s even a reference in an Egyptian text (dating to the reign of Merenptah) to a shipment of grain being sent to the Hittites as aid. What exactly the coup de grace that finished off the Hittites was is unknown – some cities show evidence of destruction as would be caused by an invasion, some cities show evidence of abandonment instead.

The next 300 years or so (c.1200-900 BCE) is referred to as a Dark Age – as with other Dark Ages this is because of a lack of textual evidence for the era in question. The Babylonian and Hittite kingdoms had both collapsed, and Egypt and Assyria were both weakened. This meant that there was a power vacuum and new players rose to prominence. In Babylon (which had been ruled by a Kassite dynasty) a new local dynasty rose to prominence, although it wasn’t a match in power for its predecessors. Harassing both this Babylonian dynasty and the Assyrians were the Aramean peoples who were spreading into Mesopotamia proper from Syria where they had settled. In the long term they were very succesful at infiltrating into Mesopotamia – their language, culture and alphabetic script all rose to prominence in the 1st Millennium BCE.

The chapter finishes with a four page spread about the Bible and its relation to the history of this period. Parts of this section read like one person wrote it, and another went through scattering “if it really happened” and other such phrases at judicious intervals! Which makes it quite hard to sum up, as almost every paragraph ends by undermining everything it just said. There are possible linguistic and cultural similarities between what the Old Testament says about the Patriarchs and the city of Mari on the Euphrates. There are possibly cultural parallels with Ugarit (in particular Ugaritic poetry), and the Ugaritic language is very similar to Biblical Hebrew. The author here spends a while trying to place the time period of the Exodus – whilst saying that there’s “no evidence but”. They settle on 19th Dynasty prior to the reign of Merenptah, as far as I can tell. They note that the Biblical laws are remarkably similar to the laws of earlier times in Mesopotamia. Interestingly the key difference is that the Mesopotamian ones are generated by the king (and then offered to the gods for approval) but the Israelite laws are created by God who presents them to humanity (as a take it or leave it deal, not for approval). There were, I think, more nuggets of interesting information in this bit of the chapter than I’ve presented here – but something about the tone of it set my teeth on edge (as I’m sure is apparent).

The next chapter of the book will start by returning to Assyria – the Age of Empires is about to begin.

Celts: Art and Identity (British Museum Exhibition)

At the end of 2015 the British Museum put on an exhibition about the Celts, looking at both the original culture in its historical context and the way it was later re-imagined. The overall take home message from the exhibition was that the ancient people we now call Celts probably didn’t think of themselves as such, and the modern peoples who we call Celts don’t necessarily have that much to do with the ancient Celts. The Greeks were the first to refer to “the Celts”, and the Romans later took up the term. They used it for the barbarians to the North and East of Greece & Rome – in modern day Spain, France, Eastern Europe and Turkey; not Britain (at least not intially). It’s not known if the Celts saw themselves as single culture, nor if they used the term Celts to describe themselves, but it seems unlikely.

To set the tone the exhibition opened with three iconic (modern) Celtic symbols: an Irish harp, the Druid’s flag and a Pictish stone. And then around the corner were some examples of ancient Celtic art, and video showing the changes in what Celt has meant through the ages – covering along the way the noble barbarians of Roman writings, the Christian monks of Ireland, the national folk heroes of the 19th Century. After this the exhibition fell into two parts: first the historical Celts and then the later re-imagining of Celtic identity.

The ancient Celtic artifacts were laid out in several cases in one long sweeping room, with curved trails on the ceiling which you could use as a guide for how to travel between the cases. I hope they did that on purpose (I’m sure they did), because it seemed awfully thematically appropriate. The central theme of this whole room was that the ancient Celts were many different peoples & tribes, but they were linked by shared culture, art style and languages. So it seemed appropriate to be moving between the disparate cases following a line drawn from their art style. An important difference between Celtic art and the contemporary Greek art was that the Celts weren’t interested in naturalistic representations. Of course the abstract swirls and so on aren’t naturalistic, but even their portrayals of animals (as in the jug I have a picture of below) are stylised rather than realistic. (That jug is one of the Basse-Yutz Flagons, found in France dating to 400-360BCE – I took this picture a couple of years ago, one of the pair is on display in the Iron Age Europe room in the British Museum, and it’s one of my favourite items to go & see.)

Jug With Hunting Dogs and Duck Decoration

The items in this room were grouped thematically rather than by culture, to emphasise the commonalities. Near the beginning of the space was a reminder that they shared so much because the world was a connected world then as it is now – trade links people – and one of the cases that was particularly striking was a selection of torcs from right across the Celtic region. They were all recognisably the same thing, but different areas had different styles. Some were big and powerful looking, some were beautiful and delicately made. I particularly liked a big silver one from southwest Germany which had bulls heads as the terminals. And then as counterpoint to that case there was a hoard of torcs that was discovered in Scotland – there are several different styles of torc in this hoard, but all were made locally and inspired by exotic foreign designs.

As well as traders the Celts were also warriors. One of the items in the exhibition for this theme was a carynx – a boar headed warhorn. They had both an original and a replica, and a recording of a replica being played, which was rather cool. They also had a replica chariot, based on fittings found in a grave in Wetwang, Yorkshire dating to c.200 BCE, which I was a bit surprised to see had some basic sort of suspension rather than being completely solid.

The Celts also went in for feasting in a big way – the Greek writers thought the Celts were very fond of their wine. And to serve their feasts they had ornate vessels, some of which have also been discovered in graves for feasting in the afterlife. The pièce de résistance here was the Grundestrup Cauldron, which I would’ve loved to’ve taken photos of but had to settle for a postcard instead – which shows the same bit of decoration as the photo below (which I found on wikipedia with a licence that meant I could use it). It’s not actually my favourite bit of the decoration – that was the bit with the warriors playing carynxs.

Picture of the Gundestrup Cauldron
Gundestrup Cauldron Decoration, photo by Malene Thyssen.

The next section of the exhibition looked at the impact of Roman conquest on Celtic art, and identity. In continental Europe the Celtic style pretty much vanished in favour of Roman art. The situation in Britain was more complex – Britain was conquered relatively late, and never completely, so it was more of a frontier and never fully assimilated culturally into the Empire. There was definitely some Roman art in Britain of course – for instance they had on display a statue of Nero found in East Anglia around the time of Boudicea. And there was also some amalgamation of gods (and associated iconography). But Celtic art styles and culture also became a badge of “not Roman”, particularly around the periphery of the Empire on both sides of the border. Torcs, for instance, became more elaborate and are used as a statement of cultural identity (as opposed to just of status within the culture).

The exhibition then moved on to a time after the Romans left and after the Anglo-Saxons arrived. In this period the Celts were once again the periphery of the main culture of the British Isles – the “not Anglo-Saxon” peoples living at the western & northern edges. These post-Roman Celts were Christians, and their Christianity had an art & devotional style that was distinctively Celtic. The items that caught my eye in this section were a large (replica) stone cross from Iona, and at the other end of the scale the St Chad Gospels. For all their Christianity they still kept telling some of their original mythological stories – we know this because they were written down later in the medieval period in manuscripts like the Book of the White Earl.

The last couple of sections of the exhibition left behind the historical Celts and moved on to the later rediscovery & re-imagining of Celtic identity. There’s no evidence that the historical Celts ever thought of themselves as Celtic, and once the Romans had left Britain no-one else called them Celts either. This changed with the Renaissance, when scholars returned the old Greek/Roman term to use, but redefined it as specifically the people of the north-west of the British Isles rather than a Europe-wide culture. Books from the 17th Century tended to depict the ancient Celts in a very similar way to the way contemporary artists depicted Native Americans, and this theme continued through to some Victorian art as well. Even down to skin tone in some cases, as if the peoples met on the other side of the world had to be physically similar to ancient peoples because all were considered “noble savages”! The mind boggles.

From the 1750’s onwards the Celts and their mythology & history were retold in romanticised tales. For instance in 1760 there was a book publised by James Macpherson which purported to be a translation of work by the Celtic bard Ossiam. It was enormously popular, inspiring paintings and sculpture, and admired across Europe by people such as Goethe & Napoleon. Even after it was revealed to be the fabrication of Macpherson and not remotely ancient nor Celtic it still retained a lot of influence. The later 19th Century Celtic Revival was based a little bit more in fact – archaeological discoveries like the Tara brooch inspired jewellery designs and pattern books. Rennie Mackintosh’s work is a part of this movement and the part that I like. The part that I’m rather less fond of is what I’d characterise as Victorian twee-ness, and they had several examples of such things. There’d been a Victorian statue of Caractacus earlier in the exhibition that fell into this category, and also a few rather twee paintings of Celtic myths (like John Duncan’s The Riders of the Sidhe). And they also had the regalia of the National Eistedfodd in the exhibition, all my notes say is “Victorian invention, twee beyond belief!”.

The exhibition finished with a look at Celtic identity today. Again, it’s political and political in a “we’re not that lot” sense just as it was back in Anglo-Saxon times or Roman times. Nowadays of course it’s English that a Celt is not. As the English born & brought up child of Scottish parents I personally don’t see myself as either English or Scottish, preferring to call myself British. But the parts of the Celtic diaspora that headed to the US in particular have a different way to look at it. The exhibition noted that there are more people who identify as Irish in the US than there are in Ireland! And in Ireland itself Celtic identity is a powerful political statement – the mythological Irish hero Cúchulainn is now a big part of Irish Nationalist identity.

I really liked this exhibition (I even went to see it twice!), although I preferred the earlier sections about the historical Celts to the later parts about the re-imagined Celtic identity 🙂

In Our Time: P v NP

P v. NP is one of the unsolved problems in computer science, essentially the question is: can all problems whose answer can be quickly checked for correctness by a computer also be quickly solved by a computer? At the moment the consensus is “no” but there is a $1million reward for anyone who finds an algorithm that works, and if someone does then current computer security measures are all compromised because encrypted passwords will become trivially crackable. The experts discussing it on In Our Time were Colva Roney-Dougal (University of St Andrews), Timothy Gowers (University of Cambridge) and Leslie Ann Goldberg (University of Oxford).

This was a bit of an odd episode of In Our Time, as it felt like Melvyn Bragg was significantly more out of his depth than usual. Whilst his role is to ask the Everyman type questions, in this one he seemed to be asking for clarification on the wrong things – like wanting to know why algorithms are so-called rather than accepting it as technical jargon. Or repeatedly wanting clarification on why NP problems are hard because he clearly hadn’t grasped the issue – although the experts are partly to blame here because I think they didn’t put enough emphasis on wanting the optimal solution to their example problems rather than the sort of “good enough” answer that we actually use in everyday life. Because of this I didn’t really feel like I learnt anything much from the programme & I don’t consider myself particularly well educated on the subject (just see my clumsy summary at the beginning of this post for evidence of that!).

The programme started with a couple of bits of background information – first the invention of computers (as a theoretical idea) by Alan Turing. He imagined a machine that accepted inputs, generated outputs and at any given point would know what to do based solely on its current state and the symbol it was currently looking at. This is the theoretical underpinning for how all computers work. This segment felt a little detached from the later discussion, but I think the linking idea was that Turing also realised that even with this sort of computing machine (which would do calculations much more rapidly than a person could) there would still be algorithms that would fail to finish in a sensible time (like before the end of the universe).

The other piece of background information was a brief discussion of what algorithms are. In essence an algorithm is a series of instructions, Roney-Dougal used the example of a cooking recipe as an algorithm for making some specific food. It was stressed that algorithms generally aren’t entirely linear – they’ll loop back on themselves to run through several steps multiple times.

The difference between P and NP problems boils down to how the time taken to solve the problem scales when you increase the number of items in the problem (n). As I said above, what wasn’t stressed on the programme was that by “solved” they meant “found the best possible answer”. P problems scale in a polynomial fashion – hence the P nomenclature, although Gowers said you could also think of them as Practical. As n increases the time taken increases by some polynomial amount, for instance n2: i.e. if there’s one item then the algorithm takes 1 unit of time (whatever that might be); if there are 2 items, then it takes 4 units; 3 items = 9 units and so on. So the amount of time taken increases faster than the number of items does, but relatively slowly and given sufficient computing power the algorithm will finish running in a useful timescale for practical applications. Goldberg gave an example of this sort of problem: say you have a group of people and you want them to work together in pairs, but not everyone likes everyone else. As the number of people in the group increases then the number of combinations you have to look through to check whether it’s the optimal solution or not goes up. But it goes up in a polynomial fashion so an algorithm that does that checking of possible combinations will finish in a sensible time.

NP problems are those that are not P. The number of possible solutions increases exponentially rather than polynomially, and as n increases a “dumb” algorithm that just checks every one in turn will very quickly get to the point where it will take billions of years to complete. (And if computing power increases then all you do is push that point just a little further out, but not far enough to make a practical difference.) The P v NP question is concerned with a sub-group of the NP problems that are called “NP complete” – these are the ones where a potential answer can be easily checked for correctness by a computer, but the answer cannot be trivially found. And the question is: can we figure out a clever algorithmic “trick” to turn an NP complete problem into a P problem, hence making it solvable.

They discussed a few examples of NP complete problems – one of the better known variants is the Travelling Salesman problem. In this you have a number of cities (n) linked by roads, and the salesman wants to travel to each one once and only once, and use the shortest possible route to do so. With small n you can figure out the answer by inspecting all the possible solutions and discovering which one’s best. But as n increases the number of routes goes up exponentially and this becomes a non-viable way of attacking the problem. Obviously for this specific scenario we find “good enough” answers for real world purposes (deliveries from central warehouses to local retail outlets, for instance). But if any of those answers is the optimal solution then that’s by chance rather than because the distributor figured it out.

To give another example, Goldberg returned to her example of a P problem – dividing up a large group into pairs of people working together optimising it for most people ending up working with the best possible partner. When it’s pairs, it’s a P problem … but if you’re looking to divide them into groups of three then it’s an NP problem. Another example is seating wedding guests when many of them hate many of the others, and optimising for fewest arguments. And all modern cryptography is based on an NP complete problem – passwords & so on are encrypted using a method involving multiplying together two very large prime numbers. To reverse engineer that (i.e. crack the encryption) you have to find the prime factors of a very very large number, which is an NP complete problem, so a brute force approach won’t complete until long after the lifetime of the person who might find it useful. (Decoding it by the intended recipient is a case of checking an answer you’ve been provided, which is easily done for NP complete problems.)

Although these examples of NP complete problems all sound quite different mathematically speaking they collapse to the same underlying problem. You have a collection of nodes (cities, guests, whatever) which are joined by links of varying lengths (roads, levels of hatred, etc) and you’re looking for the shortest route between them. So if someone figures out an algorithm that turns one NP complete problem into a P problem (i.e. finds that P = NP) then all NP complete problems are solved. Which has both good and bad implications for how our modern world works. On the bad side, all our encryption is broken so no more secure payment sites, no secure online banking (amongst many other effects). But on the other side many products may become cheaper – it’s pretty likely that our “good enough” answers to the Travelling Salesman problem aren’t the optimal one, and once you can move things around optimally then logistics gets a lot more efficient. Circuit design also gets a lot more efficient.

However, most mathematicians think that we won’t find a solution to NP complete problems (i.e. that P != NP). As yet no clever ideas have played out, but there is that $1million reward if someone does find a solution. The experts briefly mentioned that quantum computing had once seemed a promising lead – using quantum entanglement to make the right answer somehow pop out without needing the time to do the calculations. But this was another lead that didn’t go anywhere. (Although cynical me did think that if it had been made to work by some government agency or another, then we’d not know it had …)

“The Burning Stone” Kate Elliott

The Burning Stone is the third book in Kate Elliott’s seven book series, The Crown of Stars. As I finished the last one in the series at the end of December last year I was starting to think I should write the rest of them up in one post. But when I looked at my notes, I think I’ve enough to say about each one that I don’t want to miss out that it would end up a huge post and need splitting back into individual posts! So this post will remain a collection of thoughts about The Burning Stone. (Spoilery both forwards and backwards in the series, but it’s not new so I shan’t put spoiler tags.)

At the end of book 2 (The Prince of Dogs, post) the series could’ve stopped with a sense of a “happy ending” albeit not one with all loose ends tied up. Alain has been acknowledged his father’s son, legitimised, become heir and married a princess he actually loves. Liath and Sanglant are reunited, he’s free, she has a place amongst the Eagles, and they have declared their love to each other. And this book takes that potential happy ending and shows you what happens after the story “ends” – not the last time Elliott does that in this series.

Alain’s plotline is the working out of unintended consequences of good (and otherwise) deeds. At the end of the previous book Alain and Levastine had lead the army that defeated Bloodhand, ending the threat to the kingdom (which is what got them their rewards), a good and useful thing to do. But when they killed Bloodhand his curse on his killer was unleashed, and one by one five of the dogs and the Levastine himself succumb. Alain is now Count, but almost immediately his cousin (who would’ve inherited if Alain was not legitimised) brings a case against Alain saying that he’s not really Levastine’s son. At the hearing, everything rests on whether or not his wife will stick up for him. She carries enough clout, and this is a society where having family and kin matter, that she would turn the tide of opinion. But she not only doesn’t stand by him, she lets everyone know that their marriage isn’t really a marriage at all: it’s not consummated. And why isn’t is consummated? Alain was unwilling to rape her, instead he was wooing her and hoping one day she’d love him enough to want to sleep with him. And this now backfires on him, and leads to him ending up stripped of his countship and with his marriage annulled he’s sent to serve with the Lions (the king’s army). Of course, his wife (Tallia) doesn’t get what she wanted either … she naively thought that once single again she’d be sent back to her life as a cleric, whereas she actually gets married off to someone else that her mother wants an alliance with and her plotline in this book ends with her new husband doing what Alain would not, and raping her.

(It’s odd how my reaction to the Marion Zimmer Bradley books is omg-so-rapey, and my reaction to these isn’t despite there still being quite a bit of rape. I’m not sure why, so I’ll just note that and think about it a bit more.)

Tallia is one of the characters that Elliott uses to highlight Alain’s saintliness. I like how she does this – we’re not told that Alain is a saint, but we are shown how people who believe themselves to be saints behave and then that’s juxtaposed with Alain and his unfailing kindness and humility. Tallia has had a revelation about the nature of God, she’s got stigmata and is regarded (by herself and some others) as a pious saint. But Alain discovers the rusty nail she’s using to create the stigmata, and even without that smoking gun her behaviour is clearly that of a zealot and not a holy woman. Which is another way in which the religion in these books is realistically and interestingly messy & complicated – by the end of the series the heresy that Tallia is fanning the flames of becomes orthodox, and there’s an indication that it was the original orthodoxy that was lost over time (tho aren’t they always the “one true way”?). So she might’ve been a fraud but her ideas still took root.

Liath’s plotline in this book parallels Alain’s in many ways, both by being the same and by showing a contrast. The two marriages are the most obvious contrast – there are some similarities, after all Sanglant and Liath didn’t really know each other well before they married. But as compared to Alain and Tallia there is a mutual attraction and a mutual desire to make it work out despite the difficulties. Another of the themes that’s shared between Alain & Liath’s stories is about fathers – the blood relationship is what the world sees as most important but is that really what matters? Alain may’ve met Count Levastine in adolescence, but they form a bond nonetheless and Alain is sad to have that ripped away. Liath’s memories of her childhood are all about being on the run with her father – but she meets a woman in this book who claims to be her mother, and that her father was no such thing. Yet he’s still the man who brought her up and cared for her and loved her, all utterly alien concepts to this cold and severe mother she’s met. And both Alain and Liath end up … elsewhere. The next book shows that this is necessary for both of them in their different ways to learn the things they need to know, but at the end here it’s very much an involuntary severing of bonds.

And I’ve wittered on now for about a thousand words and I’ve only really talked about some of the things from this book. They’ve got great re-read potential for me, on this read through I was most interested in Alain, in Liath and in the magical plotline that’s just starting to take off in this book. But there’s a lot of other stuff going on, for instance the whole religious schism that I’ve only mentioned in passing.

May 2016 in Review

This is an index and summary of the things I’ve talked about over the last month. Links for multi-post subjects go to the first post (even if it’s before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there.

Radio

The Empire of Mali – In Our Time episode about this African empire which flourish in the mid-2nd Millennium CE.

Total: 1

Talks

“Historical Egypt in Photographs” Marcel Maessen – talk at the May EEG meeting.

Total: 1

In Our Time: The Empire of Mali

The Empire of Mali flourished between 1200 & 1600 CE, in sub-Saharan West Africa. At one point the Empire was so wealthy that when its ruler, Mansa Musa, travelled through Egypt on his Hajj he reduced the value of gold in Egypt with the amount he gave away. Discussing the empire on In Our Time were Amira Bennison (University of Cambridge), Marie Rodet (SOAS) and Kevin MacDonald (University College, London).

The beginnings of the Empire of Mali (c.1200 CE) are only known from an epic which survives in the oral tradition of the region. There was a prophecy that Sundiata Keita’s mother would bear a son who would become a powerful king, and so the ruling king married her (I think despite her ugliness in some versions). Sundiata was crippled at birth, which cast the prophecy into doubt, but he later was miraculously cured. When his father died, his older half-brother took the throne and sent Sundiata and his mother into exile. Sundiata grew up in a neighbouring kingdom and became a renowned warrior. He eventually returned to Mali to liberate the people and take his rightful place as king – founding the empire that would last the next 400 or so years.

The experts discussed how this is more an origin myth than factual. It’s part of the oral tradition, and is intended for performance and each performance is tailored to a greater or lesser extent to it’s audience. For instance places that are referenced tend to be locally relevant. And there are things that can be picked out as definitely having changed since the original composition. In many versions Sundiata is Muslim, but we know that Islam didn’t make significant inroads into Mali culture until later in its history. In some versions he’s even supposed to be descended from a companion of the Prophet Mohammed’s who was a freed black slave, and other versions don’t give him that sort of genealogy at all.

Another part of the oral tradition surrounding the foundation of the Empire is that Sundiata Keita laid out a constitution for how the Empire should be run. Amongst other things it set down how the justice system should work, and the details of the caste system. In the late 20th Century CE this was written down, it is now categorised as a piece of World Heritage and sometimes referred to as Mali’s Magna Carta. The experts were keen to point out that because it’s an oral tradition you have to exercise care in how you interpret it. As an analogy (which I don’t think they used on the programme) the English Magna Carta survives in a couple of original written documents, and when you compare that to what it’s become in our national mythology you can see that the latter is based on the former but they are definitely not identical.

The Mali Empire covered a large east-west expanse of West Africa, running from the Atlantic coast to Gao. Like most empires it consisted of a core territory that was ruled directly by the Emperor and this was surrounded by client states ruled by client kings. The primary source of Mali’s wealth was gold – they had the largest gold mines in the world at this time. They also traded with the Islamic world across the Sahara Desert – the nomadic Berbers of North Africa traded with Mali for both gold and grain.

Over time the Mali Empire gradually became Islamic. This doesn’t seem to’ve happened as the result of direct efforts to convert them, instead the religion arrived with Berber traders some of whom settled in Mali and practised their religion. Once the emperors became Muslim it spread more quickly through the Empire, mixing as it went with their traditional animist beliefs. As I said in the introduction to this post one of those Emperors, Mansa Musa, went on Hajj. He travelled in state over land via Egypt accompanied by a large number of his court, and took with him plenty of gold for gifts to the places he passed through. He wasn’t just fulfilling his religious obligations, he was also searching for Muslim scholars who would be willing to take employment in his court and travel back to Mali with him. One of these scholars who came back is credited with having founded hundreds of mosques all across Mali – which seems unlikely to’ve actually happened. Some perhaps were state foundations, although they are still unlikely to’ve been founded by this one outsider. And they generally have local architectural styles, rather than Arabic or Spanish designs. It seems much more likely that these are instances of towns trying to gain prestige by claiming a famous origin story for their mosque.

The majority of evidence for the Mali Empire, and its inner workings, is second hand. Much of the written evidence for the empire comes from these Muslim scholars discussed above and others who travelled to Mali. Other evidence comes from the Songhai Empire which replaced the Mali. The Muslim scholars seemed to’ve regarded Mali as somewhere different, but nonetheless civilised. For instance when writing about their justice system it is described as effective, even if it wasn’t what the observer was expecting.

The Mali Empire began to disintegrate in the 17th Century CE. The experts said that this was down to it becoming overstretched “like all empires”. Control of the periphery began to decline, and territories started to break off and become independent. One of these was Songhai, and this ex-vassal would go on to conquer the territory of the Mali piece by piece from the West. Another factor in the decline of the Mali Empire were the destabilising interactions with Europeans on the Atlantic coast of the empire. They noted on the programme that one of the commodities that the Mali traded in was slaves, and the selling of slaves to Europeans began the transatlantic slave trade.

Until relatively recently historians were dismissive of the Mali Empire – for instance it was assumed it was ruled by Muslim Berbers, rather than the people who actually lived in the country. This unthinking rejection of sub-Saharan African civilisation was bolstered by a lack of archaeological evidence to contradict it. However more recently there has been a resurgence of interest in African history in general and the Mali Empire has become something worth researching. This has lead to new information, including archaeological discoveries, particularly in the region where the capital city of the Empire was.

April 2016 in Review

This is an index and summary of the things I’ve talked about over the last month. Links for multi-post subjects go to the first post (even if it’s before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there.

Books

Non-Fiction

“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke. Part of the Thames & Hudson Ancient Civilisations series.

Total: 1

Radio

Holbein at the Tudor Court – In Our Time episode about the court painter of Henry VIII’s court.

Total: 1

Talks

“The Mechanisms and Practice of Egyptian Tomb Robbery: A View from Ancient Thebes” Nigel Strudwick – talk at the April meeting of the EEG.

Total: 1

Trip

A Week in New York, October 2015.

Total: 1

A Week in New York, October 2015

Last October J & I visited New York for (nearly) a week, mostly to see the Egyptian stuff in the Metropolitan Museum of Art – but we did do other sightseeing too 🙂 In terms of Ancient Egyptian stuff seen we spent two and a half days in the Met (including time in their exhibition on the Middle Kingdom that opened while we were there), and a day in the Brooklyn Museum. And for non-Egyptian stuff we managed to cram 2 tall buildings, a boat ride past a statue, Central Park (more than once, both walking & running), 2 art galleries & the Natural History Museum and a lot of tasty food & drink, into about a day & two half days. It was the sort of holiday you come back from feeling like you need a week on the beach to decompress before doing anything else … so instead we went away for a weekend in London with friends (and study days for J) before returning to reality with a bump!

A selection of my photos from the trip are up on flickr, here (or click on any of the photos on this post to go to it on flickr). There’ll be more Ancient Egyptian related ones later, but this set has all the sightseeing ones in it.

Day 0

Our journey out seemed to take forever, partly coz we stayed over in a hotel at the airport the night before our flight. But it was uneventful, and eventually we made it to the hotel. When we were booking pretty much every hotel in Manhattan, and particularly in the area near the museums, had reviews that talked about how small the rooms all were so we were kinda fearing the worst, but it was actually a pretty reasonable room and much bigger than we were expecting 🙂

Me in Our Hotel Room

Day 1

Our original plan was to do city sightseeing on the first day, but the weather forecast said that it was going to turn into the only bad weather day of the trip so we changed things around. We had to pick up the sightseeing passes I’d bought so we walked from the hotel through Central Park to do that, via a breakfast of pancakes and bacon (surprisingly tasty) in a diner along the way.

Me in Central Park

We then spent about 9.5 hours in the Met, and saw a bit more than half of their Egyptian things … I hadn’t actually realised quite how much stuff there was in there. We did pause for lunch btw, and were impressed with the cafeteria they had – loads of proper food options as well as sandwiches. Actually I quite liked the museum as a whole – even though we didn’t explore much past the Ancient Egyptian stuff, there was a lot there to see and we could’ve spent a lot longer than the time we had on this trip. The only annoying thing about it was in the Egyptian sections there were constant tours coming through that were purporting to tell their victims all about Egypt in the Bible. But sadly almost everything one overheard them say was utter bobbins – for instance the scarab beetle hieroglyph has nowt to do with the god Ptah, and the plague of locusts wasn’t sent to make Egyptians worry about taking the name of Ptah in vain as they spat locusts out. It wasn’t just wrong, it was fractally wrong – every statement I heard had me wondering where to start in deciding what was wrong with it. And as we spent a lot of time there, I had a chance to hear these stories multiple times …

Naqada II Pottery

Anyway, moving back to the interesting and non-tooth grinding stuff 🙂 The Egyptian galleries are laid out in chronological order and on this first day we managed to get from the prehistoric stuff through to the middle of the 18th Dynasty. I’m going to write up a bigger post about the Met once I’ve got all my photos from there online, so this post will only have general thoughts. One thing that struck me was that there was a subtle difference in how the objects were presented – the Met (and the Brooklyn Museum) are art museums rather than history museums. And although I can’t quite put my finger on how the presentation was different it did feel a bit more like the history was there to contextualise the object one was looking at, rather than the object being there to illustrate the history one was learning.

Model Travelling BoatGazelle

Day 2

For our second day we spent half the day doing sight-seeing before returning to the Met for the early evening (to take advantage of the late closing day). We started by getting up very briskly to try and beat the rush to the Empire State Building – which we pretty much did, still a lot of people but we didn’t have to queue terribly long.

View from the Empire State BuildingView from the Empire State Building

After looking at Manhattan from on high, we next went to look at it from the water … We’d decided not to actually visit the Statue of Liberty, instead we took the Staten Island Ferry which goes past the Statue and gives you a pretty good view of it and of the iconic Manhattan skyline from below. We had our lunch over on Staten Island – we tried to strike off into the island itself to see if we could find somewhere to eat, but I think we went the wrong way and ended up in a distinctly Not Touristy part so after a bit of a failure of nerve we returned to the ferry terminal and went to one of the restaurants there. Despite it feeling like a bit of a cop out, we actually had a rather nice lunch and the service was possibly the best of the whole trip. We then took the ferry back – having taken lots of photos on the way out I just admired the view on the way back 🙂

Statue of LibertyView from Staten Island FerryView from the Staten Island Ferry

And then back to the Met – we got round almost all the rest of the Egyptian stuff, except for one suite of galleries that they randomly closed just as we were about to look at it (I think they didn’t have enough staff that evening? it wasn’t clear what was going on). We even got to the pièce de résistance today – a whole (small) temple. I really liked how they had the room it’s in laid out – the temple is surrounded by a moat, with a small handful of carefully chosen pieces of sculpture. One of the walls of the room is glass (from Central Park it looks like a glass pyramid), and so the temple is mostly lit by natural light during the daytime. And looking at the temple I even found some graffiti – that’s how you can tell it’s a real temple 😉 Mostly 19th Century European stuff, but I think some demotic as well.

Head of a Canopic JarTemple of DendurGraffiti on the Temple of Dendur

Day 3

This was the only day of the trip that we left Manhattan – to spend all day in another museum full of Ancient Egyptian artifacts! We got to Brooklyn a little earlier than the museum opened, so did have a little wander about and a coffee in a nearby cafe. But the rest of the day was spent in the museum 🙂 They don’t have anything like as much stuff as the Met but there was still a lot there.

Female FigurineBlock Statue of Ay

I did manage to fit in a look at their Ancient Near East room as well – I was amused to see that among their objects they have some of the same series of reliefs from Ashurbanipal’s palace at Nineveh as are in the British Museum. Apparently there were so many found that the BM sold some of them off as they simply didn’t have space to display or store them all.

Reliefs from the Palace of Ashur-nasir-pal IIHead of a Snarling Lion

Day 4

After a full day of museuming we spent the next day doing more city sightseeing. For someone who’s not keen on heights I was spending a lot of this holiday up tall buildings: we bookended this day with two trips up to the Top of the Rock, so that we could see the views in daylight and after dark. The trip up the Empire State Building was in large part because J felt you can’t visit New York without going up the Empire State Building … and the trip up to the Top of the Rock was because we wanted to see the Empire State Building in the skyline. And we also got a much better view of Central Park than we had from the Empire State Building.

Me at The Top of the RockView from the Top of the Rock

After the first trip up a tall building of the day we headed to the Museum of Modern Art. I’d thought in advance that there might not be much there to my tastes – I’m not overly keen on “modern art” as a broad category. But it turned out that there were quite a few things I did like. There was plenty of stuff by Van Gogh, the Jackson Pollack pieces were much better in person than on the telly. I also liked the Rothkos, and several other things. And the Monet waterlily paintings … which wasn’t a surprise, I’ve always been fond of them 🙂 And other things too. But I still don’t like Picasso very much, and that’s who always pops to mind first when you say “modern art”.

Me with Van Gogh's Starry NightJ with a painting by Paul Klee"Water Lilies" Claude Monet

We also looked at some of the contemporary stuff in MOMA, but that mostly just reminded us that the passage of time is a useful way of filtering out the good stuff from the dross 😉 After that we walked up to the Natural History Museum … hoping to find lunch on the way, but somehow I’d picked the wrong street for us to walk along as we didn’t see a single cafe or restaurant till we were right next to the museum. Still, we got to eat in the end 🙂 And then we saw dinosaur bones 😀 And some mammals, and early vetebrates. To be honest, whilst I was pleased we went to this museum, it felt much more like a commercial enterprise than any of the other museums – organised primarily to separate you (and any children you might have) from your money. But still, dinosaurs!

I'm a Dinosaur!Me & My Turtley Friend

And then we walked once more. Back down towards Top of the Rock to while away the time till the sun set. We popped into Central Park on the way past to see the memorial to John Lennon. And then walked down Broadway for a bit, and had a drink in a bar around there. Once it got dark we headed to Times Square to walk through there (so, so, so tacky, but a box we felt we should tick), before going back up the Top of the Rock. We’d been pleasantly surprised at the speed the queues moved in the morning, but the evening showed us we’d just timed it right. The view was pretty good tho – worth queuing for! The Empire State Building was lit up in the colours of the Italian flag for the evening – because it was Columbus Day, and the New York Italians have a parade that day (we managed to not find out about it till later in the day, tho we had seen the barriers earlier and wondered what it was about).

J at the Memorial to John LennonTimes Square at NightView from Top of the Rock at NightView from Top of the Rock at Night

Day 5

This was our last full day in New York, so obviously we spent it in the Met with the Egyptian stuff again! We did also pop into a couple of the other galleries – I wanted to see the Monet paintings they had, having seen the ones in MOMA and been reminded how much I like them. (I also bought a waterlily painting t-shirt as a souvenir!) In terms of Egyptian stuff we finished off the few rooms we hadn’t had a chance to see when they shut them on our last visit, but the main reason we’d gone there on that particular day was to see the special exhibition that had just opened about the Middle Kingdom. It was actually a surprisingly big exhibition – the Met is a huge space, and so what had looked like a medium size room on the floorplan turned out to be much bigger. The exhibition looked at how the art and iconography of Egypt was transformed during the Middle Kingdom period. The best known Pharaohs these days are from the New Kingdom (e.g. Tutankhamun, Ramesses II) or the Old Kingdom (e.g. Khufu and his Great Pyramid), but to the (later) Egyptians themselves the Middle Kingdom was their classical golden age. I plan to write up a more detailed post about it later 🙂

Coffins of Mistress of the House of Amun, TabakenkhonsuStatue of Senwosret III as a Sphinx

Day 6

We didn’t need to leave for the airport until mid-afternoon, so had a little bit of time on our last day to do a bit more touristy stuff. This was our opportunity to fit in a run round Central Park – we did a 6 mile loop at my speed (so slow for J) which was rather fun. There are an astonishing number of runners in New York, particularly in Central Park itself (which is also well set up for runners & cyclists with designated paths for them). And then after packing and checking out of the hotel we still had more time to kill so we popped into the Guggenheim Museum using up the last visit on our Explorer Passes. If we hadn’t been looking for something relatively near the hotel I don’t think we’d’ve visited this – it hadn’t sounded to our tastes, and turned out to be even less so than anticipated. Most of the galleries were closed because they were installing exhibitions, so the majority of what was visitable was an exhibition of work by Alberto Burri who was a 20th Century Italian who made paintings that were generally only one colour and the canvas would also have bits of plastic on it or holes in it to create texture. One, in isolation, might’ve been quite striking – there were one or two of the black ones that I almost liked. But fifty, laid out up a spiralling gallery, one after another after another, grouped chronologically (and thus all reasonably similar to their immediate neighbours) got rather relentless. There was also a small gallery open with some of their permanent collection which was more to my tastes – more like the range I’d liked in MOMA. Including a Picasso I actually liked!

And then it was time to go home – it had been a good holiday. I’d been ambivalent in advance, I’d been underwhelmed on my first short visit over 20 years ago, plus a lot of what people talk about when they talk about New York is shopping (which I wasn’t interested in) and there’s a distinct lack of medieval or early modern architecture (being as the city didn’t exist back then) which is often what I want to see when I’m sight-seeing somewhere. But I did enjoy it, although I think it may be a once-(properly)-and-done city for me 🙂

Me in Central Park